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The lingering recession has taken a toll on Utah's youngest residents, leading to a 48 percent increase in the number of homeless school-age children since 2008, according to state data released Wednesday.
Nearly 12,000 children were homeless in January 2010, meaning their families had lost their homes and were typically staying with friends or relatives, officials said at the annual Homeless Summit in downtown Salt Lake City.
In the Salt Lake City School District this fall, one girl was staying with friends after her mother was deported. Another teenager stayed with relatives, finishing high school in Utah after his family left the state for work in Montana.
Statewide, the numbers of homeless children jumped from 8,016 in 2008 to 10,388 in 2009 and 11,883 in 2010.
Advocates worry that, without support, homeless students could drop out of school and become another statistic either involved in juvenile crime or pregnant. As school officials focus on keeping students in the classroom, the children and teenagers need everything from backpacks to help with college financial-aid applications.
The young children staying at the downtown homeless shelter, The Road Home, attend nearby Washington Elementary. They may stay for weeks or months, sometimes returning when their family becomes homeless again.
"That means we have children coming and going on a more frequent basis," said Principal Rebecca Pittam.
Pittam said students facing homelessness deal with a host of issues. Children might be adjusting to the loss of their home or dealing with the uncertainty of where their family will live in the future. A child in that situation may not have a regular place to do homework and may face a lack of privacy.
Families who are doubled up, staying in a cousin's basement or on a friend's couch, may be eligible for a stimulus-funded program intended to prevent homelessness.
The state's goal is to ensure that Utah's homeless families know about the $8 million Homeless Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing Program, which has operated in Utah for about a year. As of July, 1,486 households had benefited from the program, state officials said Wednesday. It helps with paying rent, security deposits, utilities, case management and other needs.
"Those are the folks who are just a step away from homelessness," said Jonathan Hardy, director of the state community-services office. Of the more than 15,000 homeless people in Utah, 43 percent are people within families, considered to be the fastest-growing part of the homeless population.
For people such as Mike Harman, whose job is helping homeless students in the Salt Lake district, the state increase is no surprise. He sees a growing number of students who are considered "unaccompanied" youth without a parent or guardian. They may have run away as they struggled with their sexual orientation. Others may have been kicked out for other reasons or have chosen to live on their own. Harman can intervene when students need parental signatures or simply encouragement to stay in school.
"We're all responsible for everyone's child," he said.
At the Canyons School District, Connie Crosby, the homeless liaison, is hearing from many newly homeless families who don't know where to get help. Worried about their children, the parents are relieved to hear that federal law allows their youngsters to stay in their original school.
"Becoming homeless is so traumatic, sometimes the only stability they have is their school," she said.
Utah is in the middle of a 10-year push to eliminate chronic homelessness and reduce homelessness overall. Data released earlier this year suggest that the massive effort to house the chronic or frequently homeless is having an impact. That group shrunk by 42 percent since last year, according to figures released in May by the state Division of Housing & Community Development.
How to help
The Salt Lake Education Foundation is always in need of donations. Go to http://www.slcschools.org/sites/slef/for more information.