Mortgage Crisis Is Leaving Children Homeless

NEW YORK -- Children's advocates say the impacts of the housing and foreclosure crisis are being felt in K-12 classrooms and communities across the country.

The United States' current record-breaking rates of mortgage foreclosure will directly affect 2 million children this year and next, according to a recent report from First Focus, a bipartisan child advocacy organization.

"Our homeless education liaisons are noticing increases in the number of students who are homeless, not just in high-poverty families but also those who have typically been middle class and facing this for the first time," says Patricia Popp, state coordinator for homeless education in Virginia.

Under federal law, school districts are required to have homeless education liaisons to identify and assist homeless students.

Kathy Kropf has served as the homeless liaison in Macomb Intermediate School District in suburban Michigan for 14 years. "Our numbers are the highest they've ever been this year," she says. This school year, the county served 514 homeless students, a 33-percent increase over last year. At least 50 of those students were made homeless by recent foreclosures, according to Kropf.

The national data on homelessness during the 2007-08 school year will not be available until the Fall, but preliminary evidence suggests a rise.

In April, the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth, a grassroots membership and advocacy organization, surveyed over 1,000 school districts about the impact of the foreclosure crisis. Those districts reported serving a total of about 250,000 homeless students as of April 2008. With two months left in the school year, that number was already almost equal to the number of homeless children served the previous year.

The districts reporting the highest increases in homeless students appear to match those currently leading in foreclosures -- namely, areas in California, Florida, Texas, Michigan, and Ohio, says Barbara Duffield, the organization's policy director.

"At least 300 districts that responded to the survey said that the foreclosure crisis was having 'some or significant impact' on homelessness. Others weren't sure why the numbers were going up, whether it was due to foreclosures or the economy, or both," says Duffield, who cautions that the numbers are not nationally representative, but do make the case for further study.

Stability Helps Kids

Frequent moves have been shown to take a toll on children's learning, behavior, and health. Elementary school students who change schools twice or more in a year show poorer reading than their peers who do not change schools, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, called the Nation's Report Card. The Government Accountability Office finds similar negative impacts on math performance.

An increase in housing instability may have consequences for a nation struggling to improve its 70-percent average high school graduation rate, which dips to 50 percent in many of the largest U.S. cities. School and residential changes can cut a student's chances of graduating by more than half, according to data cited in the First Focus report.

Other studies have found ties between attending several different elementary schools and higher rates of behavior problems and violence.

Stable housing, on the other hand, has been linked to better health outcomes, according to the Center for Housing Policy.

"Absenteeism, a drop in performance, and students who were normally active participants suddenly being withdrawn -- these are all warning signs," First Focus' Phillip Lovell told One World.

Adds Duffield: "Once you lose your housing, you often find...that shelters are full or don't take older boys, or you end up in motels or hotels, which eat into any savings you have, or the families get split up among several relatives and friends."

Schools as First Responders

Veronica Peterson, a divorced mother of four in Columbia, Maryland, knows the warning signs first-hand.

For the past 10 years, Peterson has run a child-care business out of her home. In November 2006, as her business grew, she bought a $545,000 four-bedroom house. She says her credit score of 659 landed her an adjustable-rate mortgage from Washington Mutual even though she had no money for a down payment.

As the area's economy slowed, Peterson's business slowed with it. She fell behind on her mortgage payments, and Washington Mutual eventually foreclosed on the house.

Peterson's housing worries are compounding the strain of the family's recent divorce. "I manage to shield my kids from much of the housing issue, and my 10- and 11-year old don't really know -- but my 16-year-old daughter has to be responsible and kick in more, and I rely on her more. She ended up messing up in school. She was kicked out for fighting," Peterson says. Her daughter is receiving counseling.

Peterson is working with ACORN, a housing advocacy organization, in an attempt to negotiate a mortgage modification. In case that doesn't work, she has applied for public housing. She says the worst part about leaving is that her children would no longer be in this school district, which was the main reason she moved to the community 10 years ago.

Under federal law, her children would not have to change schools. The McKinney-Vento Act is designed to ensure that children can remain connected to their schools when a loss of housing forces changes in their residence status. But it's not always practical to send children longer distances to attend school, especially for those struggling to make ends meet.

The U.S. Senate is currently debating an amendment to the McKinney-Vento legislation that would add $30 million in funds to school districts for services for homeless students, including education supports and transportation.

"Shamed into Silence"

Peterson believes her loan was predatory and says that she was misled, but admits she "didn't read the papers closely enough" when she signed them. "I think a lot of people are embarrassed and ashamed because they signed those papers, so they aren't going to come forward when there's a problem or a predatory situation, they're just going to pack up and move."

Indeed, many of the respondents to the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth survey said it was difficult to gauge the impact of foreclosures because some parents -- especially those experiencing homelessness for the first time -- are reluctant to share their stories or access services, hoping it is a temporary situation.

New data is expected to clarify the exact impact of the housing crisis on children as First Focus releases a follow-up to its May 2008 report in the coming weeks.

This article is part of "Housing Crisis Investigation Week," a project of The Media Consortium, which will culminate with Live From Main Street Miami -- a televised town hall exploring how the city of Miami is facing the economic crisis and working toward a sustainable future. For more information about Live From Main Street and Housing Crisis Investigation week, go to www.livefrommainstreet.org.

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