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Special Report: Homelessness a struggle for students

By night, they bunk on the floors of friends and family, curl up in cars or sleep in temporary shelters. By day, they attend classes and roam the halls of schools in Moorhead, blending in with kids who've never been without a place to call home.

By night, they bunk on the floors of friends and family, curl up in cars or sleep in temporary shelters.

By day, they attend classes and roam the halls of schools in Moorhead, blending in with kids who've never been without a place to call home.

Since 1995, about 125 Moorhead children and teens per year have been homeless during the school year.

The population reached a near-record 151 students Jan. 31, nearly four months before the start of summer vacation.

The number itself can surprise, said Deb Pender, who oversees Moorhead Public Schools' homeless program.


But the stories and struggles shared by these students -- a hidden and silent society -- will amaze, she said.

"I don't think the general public knows how vulnerable these kids are," Pender said.

She said that 70 percent of the homeless students were raised by local families.

Pender's program aims to meet the academic and social needs of homeless youth.

Attendance rates and test scores in math, reading and writing for homeless students consistently lag behind those of their peers in Moorhead.

And adolescents without a place to live face the daily challenge of trying to fit in, while trying to shake the feeling they stick out.

"The toughest part about being homeless is not having someone to talk to about how you feel," said Maria Pinto, 10, who spent four months in a homeless shelter at the start of the school year. "You feel scared to talk about it with your classmates because you're afraid they might laugh at you," she said.

A quick look


Moorhead School District started a program to help homeless youth in 1995.

Backed by federal grants, the Homeless Children and Youth Project served 97 students its first year.

From 1995 through 2003, the project assisted 1,003 students living in shelters, in cars or with family and friends.

This year, the district will spend $53,650 to oversee its homeless population.

About $43,650 of the financing comes from federal grants via the McKinney-Vento Act. An additional $10,000 comes from federal Title I funds.

About $6,500 is set aside to transport students to class from shelters or transitional housing. Most of the money goes to staff -- outreach and social workers -- who help students academically.

"We collaborate with a number of agencies," Pender said. "There's no way we can meet all our students' needs."

Moorhead served 146 homeless students, 69 boys and 77 girls, in the 2001 school year.


The genders in the group seemed fairly balanced. However, the races and ethnicities of students were not.

An alarming number of Moorhead's homeless kids were minorities, Pender said.

Whites made up 86 percent of Moorhead's 5,560 pupils in 2001. About 8 percent were Hispanic, 3 percent American Indian and 1 percent black.

But the percentages change drastically with a quick look at homeless students.

Of 146 homeless youth attending Moorhead schools in 2001, 39 percent were American Indian, 23 percent white, 23 percent Hispanic and 9 percent black.

"The minorities we serve tend to be very mobile," said Sally Dandurand, the school district's homeless liaison.

"We see a fair number of kids go back and forth from the Indian reservations."

Linda Scheet, a school social worker, attributed the trend to families searching for employment.


"They're trying to make a better life for themselves," she said. "Many of the kids we serve come from families who are the working poor."

The district serves youth under age 5 to teens over age 18, Scheet said. More than half of the 146 homeless students -- 86 in all -- were between ages 10 and 17.

Making the grade

The family of Lisa Enderle, 13, a seventh-grader at Moorhead Junior High, became homeless in the late 1990s after leaving a "bad situation" in Richardton, N.D.

Enderle, her sister and mother relied on relatives for shelter, hopping from couch to couch each night.

Enderle's mother, Stacey, said she had no references for an apartment rental, no credit history and no job.

On the road, the family sometimes slept in their Ford Bronco. "It was quite the hotel," Lisa Enderle said.

The transition didn't affect the girl's grades or her homework. "It was summer, thank goodness," she said.


But Enderle, who now lives in Sabin, Minn., understands how homelessness can cause a student's grades to slip.

"It can be a scary time for a family," she said. "Instead of school, students are worried about where their next meal is going to come from."

The district provides free breakfasts and lunches to all homeless youth, Pender said.

Still, the effect of homelessness on students reveals itself on state standardized tests.

In the 2001, 80 percent of Spuds eighth-graders passed Minnesota's basic skills test in reading. About 75 percent passed the math test, while 93 percent of sophomores passed the writing test.

Homeless students didn't fare so well. More than two-thirds of students -- 28 of 40 -- failed the math test, while 20 of 44 failed the reading test. Nine of 23 sophomores failed the writing test.

About three-quarters of homeless students in Minnesota test below their grade level in reading, according to the Minneapolis Foundation.

The same students are four times more likely than their peers to have learning disabilities, the foundation said.


"When a homeless child moves from school to school, it creates gaps in their knowledge," said Mary Jo Schmid, principal at Riverside Elementary School.

"They may have street savvy, but you'll also find that they have holes in their education," she said.

Schmid's school sits blocks away from Churches United for the Homeless. About 20 children from the shelter attend Riverside each year.

Initially, the school places students into grade levels based on children's ages.

However, teachers keep a keen eye on homeless students to help them, if necessary, Schmid said.

"We probably keep closer tabs on them," she said. "A teacher never says, 'I'm going to help this child because he's homeless,' but they can say 'I'm going to help because help is needed.'

"If a child in fourth grade doesn't know his alphabet, that sends up a red flag to us right away," Schmid said.

Trying to fit in

No child feels comfortable talking about being homeless, Pinto said.

The fourth-grader spent more than four months from September until January living at Churches United with her mother and sister.

The family initially stayed at a friend's apartment after relocating to Moorhead from New Mexico.

But Pinto said her mother, who had polio as a child and uses a wheelchair, couldn't climb the stairs at the apartment, so they turned to Churches United.

Described as bright and articulate by teachers, Pinto never discussed being homeless with classmates.

"I told them I moved, which is true," she said. "I don't think anyone wants to talk about not having a home."

Sarah Jones, 17, and her sister, Angie, 21, understand Pinto's hesitancy.

The girls found themselves homeless for six to eight months after their mother left an abusive relationship.

They stayed at Churches United for months as their mother battled alcoholism.

Both girls attended classes part time when they could. They left mainstream classes to enroll in the Red River Area Learning Center, the district's alternative school.

"I went to regular school, but the kids teased me," said Sarah Jones. "I told my mom I didn't want to be around people who would do that."

Angie Jones graduated in 2002 and her sister plans to finish school this spring.

The girls' story isn't uncommon in Moorhead. Many homeless youth share similar stories of physical and chemical abuse in their families, officials say.

The Wilder Research Center in St. Paul interviewed 200 homeless men, women and children Oct. 26, 2000, in Fargo-Moorhead.

Among the findings:

- Roughly 14 percent of parents in Moorhead said their children skipped meals in the past month because they could not afford food.

- About 57 percent said they had been unable to obtain dental care for children.

- Twenty-nine percent of parents reported at least one child with a learning or school-related problem.

Scheet helped conduct the interviews in 2000. The types of factors discovered in the survey reveal a few reasons why students who are homeless feel alienated from their peers, she said.

But there are others.

"We interviewed 10 kids at the time and asked the girls if they had been offered money for sexual acts," Scheet said.

"All of them said 'Yes.'"

Making a difference

Despite the obstacles homeless children face, Pender said she believes the district makes a difference in kids' lives.

Scheet said homeless advocates have a two-day rule to get kids to class once officials discover they're homeless.

The district offers students free transportation to school if they move outside their attendance area, even to Fargo.

Through partnerships with other agencies, students who have children of their own are offered free day care.

And the district has started a partnership with Minnesota State University Moorhead to provide accelerated courses to students who need help with basic skills.

"We try to break down the barriers that can prevent kids from succeeding," Scheet said.

Schmid said teachers have to do their part to make kids feel welcome, too.

"We try to be warm and make sure they don't stick out," she said. "And if they leave us, we make a big effort to say 'We'll miss you.'"

Sarah Jones said that sort of effort made the difference in her staying in school after her stint with homelessness.

"People at Red River (Area Learning Center) would do almost anything to get you to school," she said.

"If you're homeless, they make sure you're safe and get you back on your feet."

Enderle and Pinto point out homeless children, too often, feel like they're alone.

Kindness from friends and strangers can determine how a child copes with being homeless in school, they say.

"Not having a home can be painful," Enderle said. "When you get the slightest piece of charity, it means the world to you."

Readers can reach Forum reporter Cole Short at (701) 241-5557

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