hidden problem

Young and homeless: a tough road for a growing number of Colorado students

Dorothy Leyba, a homeless liaison at Denver's East High School, leads a support group for students identified as homeless.

Kamia Bradley has so much going for her.

The poised 17-year-old will graduate from Denver’s East High School next month and set off on a trip to Ghana with the school’s choir in June. Next fall, she plans to go to college in Denver or Arizona. She started flying lessons last summer and dreams of being a pilot.

Kamia’s accomplishments and aspirations are all the more impressive given that she lives with challenges most of her classmates cannot fathom. She is homeless.

It’s not living-on-the-streets homelessness—the circumstances most people associate with the term. Bradley moved in with her cousin’s family in northeast Denver’s Montbello neighborhood last year after a stint in a motel with her mom. They’d lost their Glendale apartment.

Under federal law, Kamia falls into a category called “doubled up,” meaning she’s temporarily living with friends or relatives because of housing loss or financial hardship. It’s this subset of homeless students that has grown at alarming rates in some districts in recent years, especially Denver, Adams 12, Pueblo 60 and Mesa County 51.

All four districts saw their homeless student numbers increase by more than 30 percent last year, according to district data analyzed by Chalkbeat.

Such spikes are worrisome because homeless students are at high risk of mid-year school switches, chronic absenteeism and other problems that can hurt them academically.

Observers say the disconcerting trend lines in some districts are a sign that affordable housing is a major problem. In gentrifying Denver, more and more families are getting pushed out of the city by rising rents, while Grand Junction and other communities haven’t enjoyed a strong post-recession rebound.

The rising number of homeless students in those communities was spotlighted in the annual KIDS COUNT in Colorado report, released last month by the Colorado Children’s Campaign.

Statewide, the number of homeless students in Colorado rose from about 24,000 in 2013-14 to 24,700 in 2014-15. Balancing out the big increases in some communities were decreases in districts such as Boulder Valley, St. Vrain and Weld 6, where many students rendered homeless by the 2013 floods have found permanent housing.

Nationwide, there were nearly 1.3 million homeless students in 2013-14, a 7 percent increase from the year before. In both years, “doubled up” students made up three-quarters of the tally.

Path to homelessness

Kamia’s path to homelessness touches on territory familiar to anybody who works with such students—a parent’s mental illness, a lost lease and a lots of dead end house-hunting.

With her mother suffering from depression and delusions that she was being poisoned, the teenager spent two months last year trying to find an apartment that would take their Section 8 housing voucher.

Kamia Bradley, a senior at East High School in Denver
Kamia Bradley, a senior at East High School in Denver

“I called so many different places,” she said.

But rents were too expensive or landlords wouldn’t accept the vouchers. So Kamia moved in with her 28-year-old cousin. She leaves the house at 5:40 a.m. for the hour-and-a-half bus ride to school. Her mother ended up in a shelter, sporadically reachable on a prepaid cell phone.

School districts are required to identify and help homeless students under a federal law called the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act. But figuring out who’s homeless can be tricky. Many families don’t know they qualify for help if there’s a roof over their head—even if that roof is temporary and doesn’t belong to them.

“The problem with youth homelessness is it’s usually pretty hidden,” said Cathy Ebel, prevention services coordinator for Mesa County 51.

District employees called homeless liaisons often work doggedly to identify homeless students who are doubled up or living in shelters, hotels, campgrounds or vehicles. Part of the job involves educating school secretaries, registrars and other school staff to recognize and respond accordingly to the signs of homelessness among new students.

Homeless students are entitled to immediate enrollment and free school meals even if they lack the required paperwork. They also have a right to free transportation back to the school they attended when they became homeless. Many districts also help by providing backpacks, school supplies, groceries, clothing and other resources to students and their families.

What’s driving the increases?

Although the poverty rate has decreased statewide, housing struggles are ubiquitous in many communities with rising homeless counts.

“Grand Junction’s economy hasn’t recovered as quickly as other Colorado cities,” said Ebel.

Also, as the only sizable city between Denver and Salt Lake City, Grand Junction tends to attract struggling families because of the many services available, she said.

In Denver, district officials say an influx of new residents, the lack of affordable housing and some families’ loss of Section 8 housing vouchers have contributed to the housing crisis among lower-income families.

Anna Theisen, program manager for the district’s Homeless Education Network, said the district has seen big increases in its doubled-up numbers and the duration of homelessness over the last year.

In Pueblo, many families come in search of cheaper housing and sometimes with the expectation of landing a job in the city’s marijuana industry, said Christy Graham, grant management specialist for District 60.

Another factor contributing to rising homeless student counts is better identification.

Ebel realized a couple years ago that her district’s homeless student count was lower than it should be—only about 390 students. A common rule of thumb, she said, is that the tally should equal about 10 percent of the number of district students who qualify for free school meals. By that measure, the number would have been about 740 in 2013-14.

Ebel subsequently stepped up identification efforts and the numbers jumped to 653 last year—a 68 percent increase. This spring, the district began working with a local shelter to place outreach workers at the district’s four large high schools to better identify and serve homeless teens.

Denver Public Schools has also bulked up staff dedicated to helping homeless students—last fall adding two new homeless liaisons to its staff of six.

One of them is Shant’a Johnson, who is bilingual in Spanish and helps with homeless student services at 46 district schools.

She was on her way to drop off bus passes and gas vouchers at a West Colfax elementary school on a recent afternoon when she spotted a small beat-up RV parked on a side street. There was a heap of scrap metal on top.

It belonged to one of her clients, she said—a grandfather with custody of his two grandchildren, one with special needs. The man, a former homeowner in Denver, had suffered a health crisis after taking on the kids, subsequently losing both his construction job and his house.

“There are some days it’s just like, ‘Wow, it’s so eye-opening,’” Johnson said.

Homeless students here?

Dorothy Leyba, a homeless liaison who works three days a week at East High School, said because of its reputation as a high-achieving and sought-after school many people are shocked to discover East has any homeless students at all. There are 56 out of 2,500 this year.

Homeless families in Denver can stay in this hotel run by the Volunteers of America for up to 12 days.
Homeless families in Denver can stay in this hotel run by the Volunteers of America for up to 12 days.

A half-dozen of them sat around a long wooden conference table at the school during a recent monthly support group meeting Leyba leads. It was fourth period. They munched on Doritos and granola bars as Leyba announced who would receive $5 gift cards for keeping their monthly attendance at 90 percent or better.

One boy had missed two school days in February, but still met the threshold.

“The only reason why is because I lost my bus pass and it was hard,” he explained.

In the next few minutes as Leyba asked what extracurricular activities they wanted to pursue, it was easy to forget the students were anything other than typical teenagers from stable homes.

One boy, who soon rushed off for an ACT practice test, said he wanted to take jujitsu. The boy who’d lost his bus pass asked about taekwondo and a girl across the table said she wanted to find a program that would teach her more about Japanese culture.

Leyba revels in her students’ resilience, but she also knows the daily frustrations they face.

Last fall, for example, Kamia was barred from attending the first day of classes because school officials initially said she needed a parent or caregiver to officially enroll her. Such logistical snafus happen a lot, but even harder is feeling alone in the world.

“When I’m sick I don’t have anyone to take care of me,” she said. “I can’t say my mom has died but that’s how it feels.”

Not long for this world

Denver teen pregnancy prevention organization to close its doors at the end of the year

PHOTO: freestocks.org

A Denver-based nonprofit focused on teen pregnancy prevention and youth sexual health will close its doors at the end of 2017 after losing two major grants.

Andrea Miller, executive director of Colorado Youth Matter, announced the news in an email to supporters Monday afternoon.

The organization, begun in the 1980s as a volunteer-run group, provides teacher training and assistance in picking sex education curricula for 10 to 25 Colorado school district a year.

Miller said she’s hopeful other organizations will pick up where Colorado Youth Matter leaves off — possibly RMC Health, the Responsible Sex Education Institute of Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains or the state-run Colorado Sexual Health Initiative.

Colorado Youth Matter’s biggest financial hit came in July when federal officials announced the end of a major teen pregnancy prevention grant mid-way through the five-year grant cycle. That funding made up three-quarters of Colorado Youth Matter’s $1 million annual budget.

“It feels like we’re getting cut off at the knees,” Miller said.

About the same time, the organization lost a family foundation grant that made up another 10 percent of its budget.

Miller, who took the helm of the organization just 10 months ago, said one of her primary goals was to diversify funding, but there wasn’t enough time.

Miller said with a variety of factors playing into the state’s teen pregnancy rates, which have been at record lows in recent years, it’s hard to say what the impact of the organization’s dissolution will be.

She said Colorado Youth Matter has worked successfully with school districts with different political leanings to find the right policies and resources to address the sexual health of their students.

“We have been masters at meeting the school districts where they are,” she said.

Wanna go outside?

Less plastic, more trees: New effort seeks to reinvent preschool playgrounds and capture kids’ imaginations

This play structure at Step By Step Child Development Center in Northglenn will go away under a plan to create a more natural and engaging outdoor play space.

Michelle Dalbotten, the energetic director of a Northglenn child care center called Step by Step, doesn’t like her playground.

Sure, it’s spacious, with a high privacy fence bordering an adjacent strip mall parking lot. It’s also got a brightly colored play structure surrounded by lots of spongy rubber mulch.

But Dalbotten and her staff have long noticed that the kids get bored there. They clump together in the small shady area or on a few popular pieces of equipment. Sometimes, they start throwing trucks off the play structure or shoving their friends down the slide.

Something about it just doesn’t work.

Recently, Dalbotten found a solution in the form of a new grant program called the ECHO initiative, which aims to reinvent more than 100 preschool and child care playgrounds across Colorado over the next few years. Think mud kitchens, looping tricycle trails, vegetable gardens, stages, shady reading nooks and dump truck construction zones.

The idea is to create outdoor spaces that capture kids’ imagination, connect them with nature and keep them active in every season. Such efforts grow out of a recognition in the education field that healthy habits start early and boost learning.

The current preschool playground at Step by Step is covered by rubber mulch.

Step by Step staff members had talked many times about their stagnant play space. But it was hard to envision anything different until they attended a design workshop with experts from ECHO, a partnership between the National Wildlife Federation, Qualistar Colorado and the Natural Learning Initiative at North Carolina State University.

“We knew we were missing the boat somewhere because (the children) weren’t super-engaged and we had a lot of behavioral issues,” Dalbotten said. “But we just couldn’t see past it, I guess.”

For child care providers, it’s a common challenge, said Sarah Konradi, ECHO program director with the regional office of the National Wildlife Federation

“This is a very new idea to a lot of folks,” she said. “It’s hard to sort out as a layperson.”

ECHO, borne out of a decade of research from the Natural Learning Initiative, will hand out $355,000 in grants over the next three years. The initiative prioritizes centers that serve children from low-income families or other vulnerable populations.

Fourteen centers — Step by Step and Wild Plum Learning Center in Longmont are the first two — will get $10,000 awards for serving as demonstration sites willing to host visits for other Colorado providers.

Leaders at Step by Step say kids and teachers often congregate in the limited shady spots.

Around 100 other centers will receive ECHO’s $5,000 seed grants and expert assistance to revamp their outdoor spaces.

Such transformations can have a big impact on children who may spend thousands of hours a year at such centers, said Nilda Cosco, director of programs at the Natural Learning Initiative.

“When we do a renovation of the outdoor learning environments as we call them — not playgrounds — we see increased physical activity … more social interactions among children … less altercations,” she said.

“The teachers have to do less because the children are so engaged. There is so much to do.”

ECHO, which stands for Early Childhood Health Outdoors, is the latest iteration of a program Cosco started a decade ago called “Preventing Obesity by Design.” That effort revamped outdoor space at about 260 child care centers in North Carolina, South Carolina and Texas.

Cosco said such makeovers can ”prevent obesity by counteracting sedentary lifestyles. Children walk more, exercise more, are conversant with healthy eating strategies.”

Dalbotten and her staff have big plans for their play areas, which sit behind a plaza that houses a bingo hall, Dollar Tree and Big D’s Liquor store. They’ll get rid of the colorful play structure and the rubber mulch in favor of a more natural look. There will be trees, shrubs, small grassy hills and a winding trail leading to a wide array of activity areas.

This porch will get new lighting, fencing and foliage to make it a more attractive outdoor space at Step by Step.

The center’s smaller toddler playground will get a similar reboot and its tiny yard for babies — mostly bare except for a couple low-hanging shade sails — will be expanded to include a shaded deck where teachers can sit or play with babies. A barren concrete porch on the side of the building will be remade into a cozy activity area decorated with bird houses, planter gardens and butterfly-attracting foliage.

At the recent design workshop Dalbotten attended, ECHO leaders displayed photos from other centers around the country that have gone through outdoor transformations. She saw one that stuck with her.

“There were kids everywhere,” she said. “It was super cool looking. I was like, ‘Oh look, we can be that. We can have kids everywhere.’”

PHOTO: Natural Learning Initiative
The play space at Johnson Pond Learning Center in Fuquay-Varina, NC, after a makeover.
PHOTO: Natural Learning Initiative
The outdoor play space at Spanish For Fun Academy in Chapel, Hill, NC, after a makeover.