State officials learn about youth homelessness in Windham Northeast school district

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BELLOWS FALLS — Homelessness is such a serious issue among children in the Windham Northeast Supervisory Union that at least two schools have washers and dryers to clean students' clothes, the assistant superintendent told a Vermont Senate committee.

Assistant Superintendent Lynn Carey and Michelle Herrington, the district's liaison for homeless students, said at a hearing Thursday there are 34 homeless families with children in the school district, with 55 children in those families. The students are in grades kindergarten to Grade 12.

The school district includes the towns of Rockingham, Athens, Grafton and Westminster.

Carey told the members of the Senate Committee on Economic Development, Housing and General Affairs, as well as housing activists from Windham County, that "a very large number of homeless families" has a big effect on the schools.

Before Carey spoke, much of the housing discussion focused on a lack of affordable housing in Windham County, and how that problem financially, emotionally and physically affects people in crisis. The lack of housing is also an economic development issue, several employers told the committee.

Carey said there is a washer and dryer at the Central Elementary School in Bellows Falls, as well as at the Bellows Falls Union High School. She said the children either live in tents, cars, shelters, motel rooms or "double-up" with friends of family.

The Rockingham-Westminster area does not have a homeless shelter, but a warming shelter that operates in the evenings during the cold weather. It does not accept families.

Carey said the number of homeless students had been steadily rising in recent years, and has increased 13 percent from last year's figures.

Children are homeless through no fault of their own, she stressed, and homelessness creates a high absentee rate in school.

"Homelessness for children is a very, very big, big problem," she said.

"They often come to school suffering many hardships, including living in inadequate facilities and parents who are struggling with life, and our job is to support them the best way we can," said Carey in a followup interview.

In addition to providing them with two meals during the school day, she said the school district works to ensure they have clean clothes and shoes and other materials to be successful at school.

"Sometimes, that does mean we will help the families with washing dirty clothes and providing them with other clothes to help them avoid any undue embarrassment as they are very vulnerable children," she said.

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She said Herrington, the homeless liaison, opened a Donors Choose page for coats for the homeless children and received more than $300 for the purchase of coats this winter. She said the washer and dryers were paid for by federal or state grants.

Rick Holloway, the chairman of the Rockingham School Board, said a meeting at Central Elementary on homelessness among children prompted people to "walk out in tears."

Carey said 65 percent of students in the Bellows Falls school district are considered eligible for free meals, only slightly below Athens, which has a slightly higher percentage at 66.5. Carey said she believes the rate is so high in Bellows Falls because of the high number of rental properties. "It's different demographics," she said.

Rep. Emilie Kornheiser, D-Brattleboro, who works for Windham County Youth Services, said she is aware of the washer and dryer at Central Elementary, which has helped address the "stigma of dirty clothes" for the students.

Additionally, an aide in the school district will take families to the laundromat, with the school district picking up the costs, Carey said.

Rockingham Town Manager Wendy Harrison said the town believes its existing housing stock to be one of its biggest assets, and that providing housing for the community is a prime economic development priority.

She said the town is taking several approaches, the most significant being the recent nuisance ordinance, which will crack down on dilapidated housing. She said previously, the town and village ordinances lacked ways to enforce standards and codes.

After the two-hour hearing, Sen. Michael Sirotkin, D-Chittenden, chairman of the committee, said the board came to Bellows Falls at the suggestion of Sen. Becca Balint, D-Windham, a member of the committee. He said the committee was traveling around the state to hear firsthand about the housing problems.

Hearing directly from the people, he said, will help the Senate decide its priorities for spending on housing issues.

Sirotkin said that day, Peter Paggi of the Windham Windsor Housing Trust led the committee on a walking tour of various Bellows Falls housing projects.

"Housing needs are different in other parts of the state," Sirotkin said.

Carey said if people want to help the homeless children with donations, they should contact the Windham Northeast Supervisory Union office in Bellows Falls.

Contact Susan Smallheer at ssmallheer@reformer.com or at 802 254-2311, ext. 154.


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