“We can give them everything except a place to live.”
That’s what the School District of Beloit’s homeless liaison Robin Stuht said about the struggle to assist increasing numbers of students facing homelessness. While the district can help students obtain food and hygiene items and provide academic and emotional support, it can’t solve the problem of unstable housing situations.
More families are risking homelessness as increasing numbers of landlords sell their properties because of the high prices they can get in a booming housing market. Selling the properties is especially attractive to some after they might not have received rent payments during the federal eviction moratorium.
“Landlords are now selling their rentals, and there was already an unaffordable housing crisis in Beloit,” Stuht said.
The district has already identified 268 homeless or unaccompanied youth this year. “Homeless” is defined as not having fixed, regular or adequate nighttime residences. Stuht said the total is almost double the amount identified last year.
She said about 50 of those students are unaccompanied—without a parent or guardian. While some of them are able to “couch surf” with friends or family members, they are often in unhealthy living situations that can change quickly.
Stuht often encounters students with anxiety, depression and other mental health concerns. During the pandemic, Stuht said many of the parents she met staying at motels were people fleeing domestic violence. She said there were also increased incidents of sex assaults to those under age 18. Child Protective Services has been overwhelmed with calls for service, and there is a lack of foster parents available.
In an interview Wednesday, two students described what it’s like to be struggling to find a safe place to live. Adams Publishing Group gave them fictitious names to protect their identities.
Casey, 16, is a sophomore at the Beloit Learning Academy, and Mary, 17, is a senior. Moving dozens of times as their mothers struggle to afford housing, both are in dire need of suitable clothing to attend school and are struggling emotionally.
Casey, who lives with her mom and 13-year-old brother, said she was going to have to leave the family apartment Wednesday because the landlord was unhappy with her mother. Her mother was planning on moving to Freeport, Illinois, to stay with another family member.
Casey, who is doing well academically and socially at BLA, said she was scared to leave her school.
“She’s connected with adults and teachers, and everyone loves her. Her attendance and grades are up,” said Tracy Schoville, math teacher and senior adviser.
Schoville and Stuht describe Casey, who keeps a journal and hopes to one day become a writer, as a deep thinker who is sensitive to the challenges swirling around her.
Stuht has found a woman in Beloit who has offered to take in Casey. The woman has two children of her own and has been discussing the idea with Casey’s mother. Casey has always attended Beloit schools and does not want to leave.
When asked how she is coping, Casey said “I write.” When asked if she’s worried about the future, she said: “I never know what’s happening next.”
Casey said she is more worried about her mother, who Casey said has medical issues. The stress of homelessness is becoming too much for her, Casey said.
Mary has been moving for years with her mother and three sisters. The series of departures began with an incident of black mold in one apartment that put Mary in the hospital, she said.
Most recently, Mary’s mother was evicted because she couldn’t keep up with the rent. Her mom and two sisters moved in with her grandma. Because of the crowded conditions, one sister moved to her dad’s house, and Mary sought refuge at an unlikely place—her ex-girlfriend’s parents’ home.
Mary admits it was awkward, but she didn’t know where else to go and the rearrangement is working for now. She helps out the family by babysitting.
Mary is passing all of her classes with plans to graduate early in January and begin work in the construction field. Stuht and Schoville are planning to connect her with CareerTek to possibly get her in an apprenticeship program.
“I want to build framing for houses,” Mary said.
Mary said she copes with her challenges by listening to music or riding her bike, but she still fears the future.
“I’m worried about my sisters,” she said.
Stuht said Mary would qualify for the Robin House, a home for homeless older teenage girls in Beloit, but the wait to get in can be as long as 18 months.
For now, those at BLA are working to help support the girls with transportation, food, hygiene products and more. Their stories, Stuht and Schoville said, are similar to those of many students at the school who are struggling with homelessness.
At BLA, for example, Stuht said 75% of students who are identified as homeless are unaccompanied.