Educators See Spike in Number of Homeless Students

Two years ago, Maria Stephens earned $80,000 as a mortgage underwriter with First National Bank of Arizona in Fairfax. Then, in early 2007, the owner of her rental townhouse fell into foreclosure. Months later, Stephens, a single mother of three boys, was laid off from her job.

The family moved into another rental house, then with friends and a motel before eventually landing in a Reston Interfaith shelter. In her seven months there, Stephens said she drove an hour each school day so her oldest son, Efton, could finish kindergarten at London Towne Elementary in Centreville.

Her son represents a growing wave of homeless students Washington area educators say they're seeing as a result of the nation's economic crisis. They say children are sleeping in cars, motels and shelters as their parents struggle to keep them in school.

In Fairfax County, one of the country's wealthiest areas, officials counted 1,314 homeless students last month — an increase of 20 percent over the same time last year. And in D.C., school leaders say they registered twice as many homeless youth this academic year over the same period last year.

Officials in Montgomery, Prince George's Loudoun and Arlington counties report similar increases, too.

With the growing number of homeless students, schools are becoming more of a safety net for families. Many are now giving students clothes, backpacks and extra tutoring along with the free breakfasts and lunches they're required to provide.

"We're getting calls everyday," said Kathi Sheffel, homeless liaison for Fairfax schools. "For any child in temporary housing, it's that worry about: 'Are we going to be here tomorrow? Is my stuff going to be here tomorrow?' It's not their own place, so anything can happen."

The instability can affect school performance, too. In a study of New York City students living in poverty, Pace University psychology professor Yvonne Rafferty found that homeless children did worse in math and reading, and were more likely to repeat a grade.

"Children thrive on security," Rafferty said. "For a child who is homeless, it's like having the rug pulled out from underneath you."

Creating some sense of security was why Stephens made the hour-long journey to take her son to his kindergarten class.

"I had moved so many times," said Stephens, who plans to move to Richmond for a bank job, "that was the one thing he could hold on to that was solid."