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August 22, 2014

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SCHOOLS:

Sharp rise in homeless students

More homeless children are coming to class lacking food and supplies as well

Image

Steve Marcus

New winter jackets are among the items Operation School Bell, run by volunteers with the Assistance League of Las Vegas, gives to needy children in the Clark County School District. Schools started this year with a record number of homeless students, but have had to cut back the number of students who can take part in the program.

HOW TO HELP

For information about helping schools in need, including the weekend food backpack program, call the district’s School-Community Partnership Office at 799-6560 or go to ccsd.net/partnership. For information about services for homeless students, call the Title I HOPE office at 855-6682.

Homeless Children

Seven-year-old Mariah Velasquez and her parents, Tricia and Daniel Velasquez, found themselves homeless and eventually split up about a year ago. They’ve since been reunited.
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A stalled economy and a nation-leading home foreclosure rate have contributed to a big jump in homelessness among Clark County students.

As of Friday, 2,108 students were designated as homeless by the School District, compared with 816 at the same point last year.

It’s a staggering increase that has district officials and community volunteers bracing for a wave of need.

The district begins a fresh tally of homeless students at the start of each academic year. In 2006 and 2007, officials counted about 800 homeless students in September, with several thousand students added to the list by the following spring. The district finished the 2007-08 academic year with about 4,000 homeless students, an increase of about 500 over the prior year.

The district’s homeless population was expected to increase. However, this year’s numbers, by far the highest to begin a school year, were a distressing starting point.

“It’s shocking,” said Myra Berkovits, coordinator of the School District’s program for homeless students. “If we’re this high already, where are we going to be in a few months?”

At Whitney Elementary School, home of one of the largest populations of homeless students in the district, Principal Sherrie Gahn said in past years it took a few weeks for school staff to figure out which students needed help and reach out to their families.

This year it’s different, she said.

“There’s an urgency I haven’t seen before,” said Gahn, in her fifth year at the campus near Tropicana Avenue and Boulder Highway. “Families are coming into the front office and telling us they need help.”

To determine who qualifies for aid, the School District must use the federal definition of homeless, which is anyone lacking a “fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence.”

With the increase in needy students, schools are relying more heavily on outside agencies and organizations to provide food and clothing.

For several years, Caring for Kids, formerly known as Corps of Compassion, has delivered backpacks of snacks to schools on Fridays so students don’t go hungry over the weekend.

Gahn said she persuaded the group to double her school’s allotment, to 100 backpacks from 50. Whitney Elementary staff fills another 67 backpacks with donated supplies.

The nonprofit Three Square began delivering weekend backpacks to 10 schools in April. On Thursday, a representative of the group said the program was being expanded to 60 campuses.

“Hunger is the scourge of our community,” said Punam Mathur, senior vice president of corporate diversity and community affairs for MGM Mirage and president of the Three Square board.

Mathur said Three Square knew volunteers were delivering backpacks to schools, but there was no way they alone could meet the demand.

Contributions weren’t keeping pace at Ruby Thomas Elementary School, where counselor Shelly Hernandez has 55 students identified as homeless, up from 38 a year ago.

On Friday, Caring for Kids delivered 25 backpacks of food to Thomas Elementary. Hernandez said she had to perform a sort of nutritional triage, deciding which students needed the food the most. To stretch the supplies, she had siblings share a backpack.

“It’s the only fair way I know,” Hernandez said. “Right now, today, I could hand out 60 backpacks, easily. By the end of the month I bet I’m up to 100.”

In prior years, the district’s attendance officers, whose duties also include corralling truants, ferried about 80 students a week to Operation School Bell, a nonprofit organization operated by the Assistance League of Las Vegas that provides clothing and other supplies to needy students. But this year — because of budget cuts, the high cost of fuel and the officers’ workload — trips to the Assistance League’s West Charleston Boulevard offices will be limited to one day a week and no more than 25 students, said Pam Gunter, senior attendance officer for the district.

“Operation School Bell is a phenomenal service,” Gunter said. “We just don’t have the resources to man it like we used to.”

For the students who can’t come to Operation School Bell, volunteers will pack bags of clothes to be delivered to campuses. Families fill out a form providing a student’s clothing and shoe sizes.

Debbie Yeaton, Operation School Bell’s chairwoman, and another volunteer make about three buying trips each year, working with a budget of $380,000.

Brand-new shoes and coats, and racks holding everything from T-shirts to school uniforms line the walls at the organization. Dressing rooms are available so students can try on outfits.

Operation School Bell looks more like a scaled-down department store than a charitable endeavor.

On Friday, 50 homeless students were eagerly picking out sneakers, sweat shirts and jeans. In addition to clothing, each student received school supplies and toiletries.

Volunteer Linda Prujan escorted a middle school girl around the room, checking off each item on the supply list as they added it to a new blue duffel bag. The girl grinned as she admired the detailing on the pocket of her jeans.

“You’ve made some good choices,” Prujan told her, as she cut the tags off a pack of socks.

Across the room, volunteer Diane Fields coaxed a boy out of a dressing room so she could check the fit on the waistband of his jeans. She than apologized to him if she seemed a little pushy.

“It’s OK,” he told her. “My mom does the same thing.”

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