Missouri School District Sponsors Refuge for Homeless Students

When a friend of Randi Miller's daughter started coming around to do laundry and sit down for family meals, it soon became clear the teenager hid a secret.

Like more than 100,000 U.S. high school students, the teen was homeless, a stressful situation that makes her less likely to graduate and potentially leads to social and psychological problems.

"It's not supposed to be like this," said Miller, who lives in this St. Louis suburb. "Students need to focus on school, not where their next meal is coming from."

The teen and a few others will be ideal candidates for a new group home for homeless students expected to open this school year. The public school district sponsoring it is possibly the first in the country to take on such a project.

The Maplewood-Richmond Heights district recently made a down payment on a $250,000 home in a quiet, working-class neighborhood near the high school. A church has agreed to staff it with pastors in training and an area hospital would provide a therapist.

School Superintendent Linda Henke said the idea has probably crossed the minds of school administrators and teachers who encounter homeless students every school year. But making it a reality, Henke said, is far more difficult.

"We've all thought, 'I wish I could just take you home with me,'" she said. "We're not taking over their lives. We're going to give them Sunday through Friday stability."

When an anonymous businessman donated $10,000 in seed money for the effort, Joe's Place was born in his honor as a sort of boarding house for homeless students.

Brian Q. Newcomb, a pastor in Maplewood, is part of the faith community that has responded to the school's proposal and has met with other leaders recently to make the project a reality.

Critics argue that while the school district's plan is admirable, it steps out of bounds by mixing public schools and religion.

Newcomb said he sees the issue as utterly separate: "This is not about building up our church or preaching to students. This is about a service opportunity and responding to a real need."

The yellow home on the edge of the city could open as early as this fall. The house would be staffed by interns studying for the ministry at Crossroads Presbyterian Church in Maplewood. At least a dozen students have been identified as candidates for the first class of students to live at Joe's Place.

Organizers need restaurants and grocery stores to help with meals and donations to pay the electric bills. The school board has already signed off on the plan and community officials are close to giving final approval.

"This is another example of schools stepping up to the plate where other federal agencies and programs have failed," said Barbara Duffield, policy director for the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth in Washington.

A report by state education departments estimates that more than 100,000 U.S. high school students were homeless in 2003-2004. Roughly 1,300 homeless students in metro St. Louis school districts were reported last year.

"Homeless agencies have not focused on this important slice of the homeless population," Duffield said. "There's no question that a stable place to live helps a kid make it through school."

St. Louis spends about $16 million a year on homeless services for adults, but none of that goes specifically to students.

Bill Siedhoff, Human Services Department director for the city, said more can be done for all homeless people and he's intrigued by the suburban school district's plan.

Joe's Place would cost the district $33,000 a year in mortgage, insurance, utilities, taxes and maintenance, and would need $22,000 more in annual donations, according to district estimates.

The district plans to start the project with a handful of boys ages 16 to 18 with clean criminal records. Henke said the students' parents or guardians will have to agree to the boarding-like arrangement. Many times the student would go other places on the weekend.

Candis Johnson sees the need and is a student consultant on the project. The 16-year-old varsity cheerleader said she knows students who could take this chance to start over.

"They fly under the radar. They could be athletes, and good students," said Johnson, who is the student council vice president. "This could be a spectacular change in their lives."