Homelessness in middle school means special challenges

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Catherine W. Idzerda
Monday, June 26, 2017

JANESVILLE -- Homelessness is homelessness, right?

It's difficult. It's uncomfortable. And if you're a kid, it's not something you want to talk about.

Now try to remember what middle school was like.

Remember how the wrong backpack would get you sent to the losers' table in the lunchroom? If your school supplies were too babyish or too boring, somebody said something cruel.

For kids, being homeless in middle school is its own uniquely unpleasant experience.

"They want to fit in, it's so important for them to fit in," said Carrie Kulinski, homeless liaison for the Janesville School District. "Middle school students are definitely more aware of their situations."

One student put it this way: "In middle school, everything matters to everyone."

As of June 6, about 80 of the district's middle school students were homeless. The federal McKinney-Vento Act, which lays out school requirements to serve homeless children, defines homelessness as lacking a "fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence."

Families could be living in shelters or motels, camping, or living with friends or relatives.

In Janesville, some homeless children waiting for foster placement live in the shelter care section of the youth services center. Although those children are separated from the youth held on the secure side of the building, they often are lumped together.

If you think your backpack was a mistake, imagine telling your classmates you share housing with teens who have been arrested.

Elementary school children who are homeless often are more protected from the reality of their situations: They might not know any better.

High school students, on the other hand, understand completely and might have learned coping skills.

What else is different for homeless middle-schoolers?

"Transportation is more difficult," Kulinski said.

Elementary students can walk to school or ride a yellow school bus. Middle school student have to ride the city buses. The school district offers free youth bus passes and bus tokens, but students have to ask for them.

"They tend to be guarded about their situations," Kulinski said.

Teachers might notice signs, such as problems with personal hygiene, clothes that are dirty or homework that's not getting done.

Students sometimes tell teachers, "I didn't sleep much last night" or "There were too many people in my house."

"They really don't want people to know," Kulinski said.

The effort of constantly covering up is exhausting, and that impacts all areas of students' lives, she said. 

Franklin Middle School has a "closet" where homeless students can discretely pick up the things they need. When student services staff understand what's going on, they try to help those kids fit in with practical items, such as donations for field trips and free bus passes. If a dance is coming up, kids take a trip to the Franklin Closet so they can find an outfit that helps them blend in.

Staff also tries to get homeless students into counseling groups with peers who might be going through the same thing.

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