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Homeless rates rise among local students, Bentonville tops list

story by Pamela Hill
phill@thecitywire.com

The Bentonville School District has more homeless students than any public school district in Benton and Washington counties.

“When we think Bentonville we have this image, Crystal Bridges, the downtown. I think the school district is more complicated. I think it’s more heterogeneous than we think it is,” said University of Arkansas sociology professor Dr. Kevin Fitzpatrick. “That makes this an important anomaly.”

Suzanne Nicholas, head of federal programs for the school district, said some people may be taken aback by the findings, but people involved in the daily operations of the schools are not. She said most homeless students are doubled up, living with friends or relatives and that adds to the misconception.

“They (other residents) don’t see it,” she said, since they don’t see kids living in the streets, and therefore don’t recognize youth homelessness as a problem in Bentonville.

According to data gathered Jan. 31 for the 2013 Northwest Arkansas Point-in-Time Homeless Census, Bentonville schools reported 294 students as homeless. The Fayetteville School District logged the second-highest number with 192 homeless students. The census was done by the UA’s Community and Family Institute, of which Fitzpatrick is director. It was the fourth biennial count of the region’s homeless.

While the full report from the census isn’t complete, the total number of homeless people is up about 20%, jumping from 2,001 in 2011 to 2,429 this year. And about half of those people are enrolled in kindergarten through 12th grade.

The 14 school districts in the two counties reported 1,175 students as homeless. About 75% said they’re staying with friends or relatives. There were 34 students listed as “unaccompanied youth,” which means wherever they’re staying – in a shelter, on the street, or with someone – they aren’t with a parent or legal guardian.

Nicholas said the district’s homeless numbers fluctuate some, especially since the Northwest Arkansas Children’s Shelter, a YouthBridge Emergency Shelter, and Ridgeview Teen Shelter are all within the district.

Since the beginning of the school year, the district has had a total of 424 homeless students. The census number of 294 was the number enrolled on Jan. 31, the day of the census.

“We work hard to find our homeless students,” Nicholas said. The district helps provide some of its service to homeless students through Title 1 funding.

“We live in an area that around us looks affluent,” Julie Bachmayer, the district’s social worker, said. “It even becomes very difficult for people to ask for help. They’re embarrassed. They’re used to taking care of things on their own and now they’re in a position of having to ask for help.”

Bachmayer said she wants families and students to know they can ask and they will get help.

“We want children to learn. They can’t do that if they’re wondering where their heads are going to lay that night,” Bachmayer said. “We tell them education is your way out, but at the same time we need to make sure they have all the resources they need outside of school.”

Clothing, food, a place to stay, transportation to school, school supplies, helping the families with public transportation and doctor visits are all things with which the district can provide help, Bachmayer said.

One of the most important things the district does is ensuring a student can continue in the same school and classroom even if they have to change locations where they’re staying. Bachmayer said bus transportation is arranged so students can remain at their “home” school regardless of where they’re sleeping.

“I think most of them are in a situation of having to double up with a friend or relative, sometimes staying in one place a couple of weeks, then somewhere else a couple of weeks,” Bachmayer said. “When you’re worried about the stability of your home, it’s hard to focus on school.”

Nicholas said continuity at school contributes greatly to the well-being of a child.

“That may be the one stable thing they have on a daily basis,” Nicholas said.

Fitzpatrick said without help from the school districts, the homeless census would be extremely inaccurate since many homeless people are not staying at a shelter or living on the streets. They’re harder to see and find when they’re staying at a friend’s or relative’s home.

“School district numbers are vital to telling the story,” Fitzpatrick said.

While school numbers are very important in painting an accurate picture of homelessness in Northwest Arkansas, Fitzpatrick thinks even those numbers are underestimated and underreported. The number of homeless students fluctuates, he said, and not everyone will be forthcoming about their lack of a permanent home. He says people have to be forthcoming to get services.

And the numbers of some other school districts in Northwest Arkansas may be a bit unexpected, as well. While most people expect the largest districts – Bentonville, Rogers, Springdale and Fayetteville – to make up the largest portion of the homeless count, and they do, the much smaller Gentry made the top 5, too.

“Everyone sometimes has the view that Northwest Arkansas is the land of milk and honey. It’s not always that way,” said Gentry Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Randy Barrett.

Gentry schools posted 127 homeless students.

 “We just do a thorough job of identifying kids who meet the definition of homeless,” Barrett said, stressing that homeless doesn’t always mean kids are living on the streets, but any child who is living in a temporary location with no permanent home. “There are some benefits students can have if they meet that definition.”

Barrett said it’s just as telling that 67% of the entire student body is on the free or reduced lunch program.

“We have a lot of students, by national standards, who are living at or below the poverty level,” he said.

Barrett said the district used some of its federal money to subsidize the kids who applied for a reduced lunch so that most of them can also eat free rather than pay a reduced price.

“We recognize in these tough economic times, families struggle and this is a way we could help out,” Barrett said.

Bachmayer said many of the Bentonville district’s homeless families use the area food banks and pantries. “That is such a need,” she said, and urged residents to support those. The children talk about being able to get food and how nice it is to go there, the social worker added. “It really makes a difference in their lives.”

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Bachmayer said more options in public transportation and job assistance would greatly help the families with whom she works.

Fitzpatrick said the general population of Northwest Arkansas has grown at a rate of 6.5%. In sharp contrast is the 42% growth in the homeless population between 2007 and 2011, according to the biennial censuses.

Fitzpatrick said the general population is growing at a modest rate, and the economic factors show the economy is stronger. But he said he also sees a bifurcation in the region’s economy whereby the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.

“People were drawn here,” Fitzpatrick said. “Once the bubble burst, they lost their homes, and they’re still trying to recover.”

Bentonville Mayor Bob McCaslin did not return a telephone message Tuesday (Feb. 12) , nor did Marian Riner, the Families in Transition coordinator for the Fayetteville School District.

Numbers of homeless students reported by the public school districts in Benton and Washington counties:
Bentonville – 294
Fayetteville – 192
Rogers – 162
Springdale – 156
Gentry – 127
Siloam Springs – 96
Pea Ridge – 38
Farmington – 33
West Fork – 25
Elkins – 21
Prairie Grove – 19
Greenland – 6
Lincoln – 4
Gravette – 2

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