One family got its five-day eviction notice—they needed to be out by Friday.
Another family had become homeless a few weeks ago. They had been living with a family member who was no longer letting them stay.
With some luck, the second family found housing, but it wasn’t available for a week.
So Lanora Heim, director of pupil services for the Whitewater School District, said last week she was looking for a hotel. She was also “scrambling” to help the first family secure housing.
It’s understandable why Heim can recall these examples so easily—these are the stories she takes home with her, the ones she worries about at night. Helping homeless students is “just part of our daily routine,” she said.
The number of homeless students in Heim’s district last school year was more than double what it was three years ago—going from 31 in 2015-16 to 67 in 2017-18.
Heim said the district has already accounted for 66 homeless students—13 of whom are unaccompanied minors—so far this school year.
“I do consider it a crisis level,” she said.
Why there has been such an increase is the “$1 million question,” Heim said.
The increase is also being seen locally and statewide, according to a Gazette analysis of state data.
School districts step in to assist homeless students more than the public realizes, Heim said. In Whitewater, they have fixed cars, negotiated with landlords, paid landlords rent or deposits, arranged for hotel rooms, and more.
It’s also about making sure the students get to school. Heim said districts are required to do so, but it is costly in Walworth County, which she said has an “awful” lack of transportation options.
And sometimes students need to come in from Beloit, Delavan, Elkhorn or Fort Atkinson.
Last year, the district paid for one family of three to be bused in for the year, which cost $15,000.
“The cost behind the transportation piece is astronomical,” she said. “So there needs to be like cheap, reliable, good transportation or some resources to help back what it (the cost) is.”
Heim said she wants legislators to pay more attention to the subject. She supports the federal mandate—the McKinney-Vento Act—but even with it, districts can run into funding issues. What about payment for social workers? For emergency funds? For transportation?
“It’s an important thing to protect these vulnerable families,” she said.
Every school district is required to have a liaison to work with homeless students. Heim and district social worker Mary Geraghty share the responsibilities for Whitewater.
When asked how she is doing, Heim laughed. She rarely stops to think about it.
Working with teenagers isn’t hard, she said. What is hard is worrying about children who are in unsafe situations.
“You can’t do a job like this without feeling a calling to it,” she said. “I sincerely feel like I feel a calling to it.
“It’s important and a role that somebody needs to do,” she continued. “And who’s gonna do it? At the end of the day, somebody’s gonna do it, so here we go.”