Akron, O.H. – When a student walks into school they should be able to focus on their work, getting good grades and staying focused on class.
“We will identify over 2,000 students in the Akron area by the end of the school year who have experienced some kind of homelessness this school year,” says Shannah Carino, the Akron Schools Homeless Liaison.
School is much harder when you don’t have a home to lay your head. Carino says most people are surprised there is even a position called ‘Homeless Liaison’ and even more so a need for it.
“People are surprised that we have homelessness in Akron Public Schools but they are also surprised at the size of it. It’s about 10% of our student population will have some kind of housing instability this school year,” Carino explained.
The federal definition of homelessness is what Carino and her team in the program Project Rise use when identifying students who may be housing insecure.
“Families who are living in shelters, hotels, cars also includes families who are doubled up with other families,” she said.
Project Rise intervenes so homeless students can still succeed in the classroom.
“We can provide school stability, we can help them get enrolled in school, we can provide transportation, we meet those needs in kind of their worst moments,” she said.
Carino met Dana Ford and her kids when they were at one of their worst moments.
“I was kind of nervous because I knew I was living in and out of hotels and my car, but Shannah when I met her she went over and above for me and my children,” Ford said.
Ford moved her family out of Cuyahoga County and to Akron in search of a better life, but the family continued to battle homelessness. Ford says even in their lowest circumstances she always tried to get her children Jada, 5, and Ja’Mal, 11, to school, but homework and a good night’s sleep were a challenge.
“That was some of the most difficult things to do while being homeless like even though you are in a shelter you still have to be on time and follow rules and everything,” Ford said.
Project Rise helped connect Ford and her children to their permanent home where they’ve been living for two months. Ford recently accepted a new job working with the school district, and Project Rise got her kids their school uniforms, furniture for their bedrooms and food in their pantry.
“I think I am still in shock it is beyond a blessing because we went so long without having we felt so hopeless and we just felt out of place and so having a home now is a blessing,” Ford said.
Most of Akron’s homeless students don’t live on the streets. About 60% of those students and families classified as homeless are doubled up or living with other families in tight quarters. Some students are known as ‘unaccompanied youth’, kids who are living on their own, in unstable housing and without a parent or a guardian.
“When I came here I had nothing. I came here with nothing but like the clothes on my back,” explained one Akron Public Schools senior, who did not want her name used.
She came to Akron to escape a dangerous domestic situation in another state and is living on her own and without any parents. She arrived during a snowstorm this winter and Project Rise got her a pair of winter boots.
Carino says there are more kids in this situation than most people likely realize.
“Each of our high schools in the area has a pocket of students who are living without a guardian. Advocates meet with youth to help them with their needs,” Carino explains.
An advocate helped the student we talked to find a job, food, clothes and got her enrolled in a school that would fit her unique needs. Her housing situation is also unstable, but Project Rise will be there to help her when something changes.
“I definitely want to finish my education, cause that’s what’s going to help me in the long run,” she said.
Carino says there is no one clear cause for student homelessness in Akron, but she does know they are getting better at identifying it and connecting with students, which could be a reason why the numbers are rising.
“We have seen a slight increase in student homelessness but we haven’t seen an increase in affordable housing in Akron and so we have families that don’t have other options,” she said.
Carino also explains there isn’t an obvious solution either, but in the meantime, she and the advocates who work with her are doing the best they can to help and keep students inside the classroom.
“Because student homelessness is such a complex problem it is going to take a complex solution and a lot of people working together,” she said.
Anyone interested in helping homeless students and their families can call Akron Public Schools and ask for Project Rise.