BRATTLEBORO >> A new report finds Vermont is good at identifying homeless students, in both k-12 and college settings.
"I think it's a good idea because they're nipping it early before it gets to a point where it becomes a problem on top of a problem," said Gary Stroud, a volunteer at the Brattleboro-based Drop-In Center who wants to see state agencies visit and see the problem rather than relying on statistics. "Maybe they can get a better idea of what it is that needs to be done and has to be done versus looking at a piece of paper."
The Institute for Children, Poverty and Homelessness recently put out the American Almanac of Family Homelessness. It talks about the situations and characteristics of the millions of United States children and their families facing homelessness each year. That number is said to be continually growing.
The report also looks at efforts made by all 50 states in addressing the issue as a way to better identify and serve families. The institute hopes the report will be used as a tool for advocates, service providers, policy-makers, funding sources and families.
The first report was released in 2013 and the newest is an updated version. Its purpose is not to condemn or celebrate any particular state, said Maripat Finigan, assistant director of external affairs at the institute. It is about taking the country's "temperature" and seeing whether a discussion can be made to determine best practices or to improve practices all around. Performances were reviewed within the domains of education and then programming and policies, with no state left out.
Vermont is high on the state education ranking, Finigan said. The state was number seven in this area, which focused on children who are "invisible victims" experiencing housing instability. These kids are at a greater risk for poor academic outcomes; they often are not identified and not connected to services needed for them to thrive, the report said.
"It's not necessarily the number identified that was good," said Finigan, adding that Vermont has seen a 38 percent rise in the number of homeless students between the school years of 2006-2007 and 2012-2013. "It's how well states are ranking at identifying homeless students. If they aren't, they stand little chance to get services."
She said a good percentage of the students identified as homeless were living in hotels or motels, not always in shelters or other places associated with being unstable living situations.
Vermont did well when it came to identifying college students who were homeless. The only way to do so involves looking at financial aid forms, Finigan said. Noted also was Vermont's high percentage of homeless students enrolled in Head Start programming, with Finigan saying it's important to be able to have early education intervention for those students.
The report says the majority of states have difficulty identifying homeless children of all ages and as a result, many kids are not getting into the educational services needed to prevent intergenerational cycles of homelessness. Hawaii was lowest ranked in this area, with New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Connecticut ranked 46 through 49.
"The states most successful at identifying and enrolling homeless children tend to be in the westernmost sections of the county — Alaska, Oregon, and Colorado are the three highest ranking states — with the exception of Vermont and New Hampshire, both ranked in the top ten," the report stated.
Nationally, the report found that 4.6 percent of children from birth to pre-k attending Early Head Start and Head Start are homeless, and that 3.9 percent of students in pre-k are homeless. The report also said 27.1 percent of children in kindergarten through 12th grade are homeless while 47.3 percent of college students applying for Free Application for Student Aid or FAFSA are homeless.
In Vermont, 11.1 percent of children in the Early Head Start or Head Start are homeless. Three percent of the pre-k students are homeless while 19.8 percent of children in grades kindergarten through 12th grade are homeless. College students applying for FAFSA was pegged at 59.7 percent.
"The existence of well-funded state financed preschool programs did not necessarily guarantee greater access for young homeless children. This was the case with Vermont, Florida, and Oklahoma. These states enrolled children in state pre-k programs at the highest rates nationwide during the 2012–13 school year (46 percent, 40 percent, and 37 percent, respectively)," the report stated. "While Oklahoma ranked seventh among states on the state education ranking's second education indicator — homeless children as a percentage of poor children in pre-k — these results did not translate to Vermont and Florida, ranked 19th and 25th, respectively, and both states' rates fell below the national average. States ranked 46th through 50th — Indiana, Montana, North Dakota, Mississippi, and Wyoming — all lacked state public pre-k programs. Homeless children could only enroll in local public or private pre-k in these states."
The institute's state policy ranking involved looking at the need for affordable housing and the low purchasing power for those living on a minimum wage. Also, there is information regarding how each state works to improve the lives of homeless families and prevent episodes of homelessness. Key issues include family homelessness, lack of accessible child care, discrimination against survivors of domestic violence and food insecurity.
Nationally, the report found that there are 31 affordable and available rental units for every 100 extremely low-income households and that 38.6 percent of a minimum wage is needed to afford a two-bedroom apartment at fair market rent. A total of seven policies are aimed at reducing homeless families' barriers to accessing child care. Sixteen laws protect survivors of domestic and sexual violence from housing discrimination. And three policies reduce homeless families' risk for food insecurity.
Vermont, 20th overall in the report's state policy rankings, had 39 affordable and available rental units available for 100 extremely low-income households. Here, 42.4 percent of a minimum wage is needed to afford a two-bedroom apartment at fair market rent. The report found Vermont has four policies helping to reduce the barriers homeless families experience when trying to access child care and two laws that protect survivors of domestic and sexual violence from housing discrimination. There are 1.6 policies that reduce homeless families' risk for food insecurity.