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Homeless student population sees drastic increase at Fargo-Moorhead area public schools

Fargo, Moorhead and West Fargo's public school districts reported increases in the numbers of homeless students this year when compared to the same time in 2020.

Katie Karn, board member with Matthew's Voice Project, helping with Christmas gifts for homeless students in Dec. 2020.jpg
Katie Karn, board member with Matthew's Voice Project, helping with Christmas gifts for homeless students in Dec. 2020. Special to The Forum

FARGO — Area public school districts currently have about 438 homeless students, a number that been increasing in the past six years and is a concept difficult for many to imagine, especially during the upcoming holidays.

But the numbers are true, said Jenny Schuster, a Fargo real estate agent who helped found the Matthew’s Voice Project , a nonprofit that assists homeless public school students. The problem of housing stability for K-12 students is growing worse every year.

“You push back when you see hard things, and that is the reaction of most people. For the size of the community that we have, it’s a problem,” said Schuster, who teamed up with Michelle Warren, a Fargo photographer, in 2011 to begin the project.

What began as an effort to help homeless students with senior pictures has turned into a program that provides individualized clothing, shoes, cellphones with prepaid minutes, food, gas cards and even blankets.

And the need for help in the metro area continues to increase. Fargo, Moorhead and West Fargo's public school districts reported increases in the numbers of homeless students this year when compared to the same time in 2020.

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  • Fargo Public Schools has seen the largest increase with 178 students currently homeless. This time last year, the district had 71. In November 2019, the district had 123 homeless students.

  • West Fargo Public Schools has 127 students identified as homeless. Last year at this time, the district had 125. In November 2019, the district had 149 homeless students.

  • Moorhead Area Public Schools has 133 homeless students and had 87 students this time last year. In November 2019, the district had 118 homeless students.

The numbers fluctuate every year, and the numbers from 2020 could be low because of distance learning, but the amount of homeless students has doubled over a six-year period, said Bridget Hins, social worker for West Fargo Public Schools. When she began working for the school district, she said they had an estimated 50 or 60 homeless students every year.
Reasons for the increase in homeless students aren’t clear yet, but it could be related to the eviction moratorium ending in Minnesota, families relocating to the area to find work due to COVID-related loss of jobs, and an increase in domestic violence and untreated mental health issues, according to Amelia Riccio-Galde, transitional student support and homeless liaison for Moorhead Area Public Schools.

“We have definitely increased since when I first started. Prior to me starting, there were people wearing multiple hats. When I started, it was my one job to work with the homeless population. Our numbers have significantly increased since I’ve been here,” Hins said.

Schuster is worried about the increase in homeless students, and Matthew’s Voice Project strives to offer a little hope and stability to keep students in school. Some students need toiletries, blankets and pillows, and others have difficulty making the daily trips back and forth from school.

“The numbers have grown for our organization because we have added West Fargo Schools and Moorhead Area Public Schools last year, and they’ve let us know that the numbers are growing, but they fluctuate. It all depends on students or families going to the school and saying, ‘Hey, we’re in a difficult situation,’ and that is a difficult thing to do,” Schuster said.

To help homeless students, especially during the holidays, Matthew’s Voice Project has arranged for wish lists on Amazon and frequently announce children's needs on their Facebook page .

“Imagine a 16-year-old trying to get to school and can’t get there,” Warren said. “And there are other things that we take for granted; these kids are putting those items on their wish lists.”

“We are the ones that go and find a way to get it in the community and bring it back so they can take care of the student,” Schuster said.

The Matthew’s Voice Project got its name from the term MVP, or most valuable player, and from a Bible verse in the book of Matthew about children.

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“I was thinking about MVP and how we are really focusing on the children,” Schuster said. “I didn’t want a name like the homeless kids program or anything with that kind of connotation to it, I wanted the name to have a hopeful connotation.”

Since Matthew’s Voice Project, now a nonprofit organization with a board of directors, doesn’t have a brick and mortar area for mass donations, they accept only specialty items at pre-announced drop-off locations, which are handed directly to students by social workers in school districts.

“We might put out a need for a specific sized coat or boots to really try to help individually impacted kids,” Warren said.

For Christmas this year, homeless students are filling out wish lists. Naturally, some dream big with visions of PS4s in their heads, but most want simpler items, such as tennis shoes, warm winter gear or food.

“We individualize each present for these kids that will say, 'Someone out there loves me and got this for me,'” Warren said.

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