Nicholas Mathisen’s unused graduation cap and gown were destroyed when heat and smoke scorched his home in March.
His family was renting the upper unit of a converted garage on South Shore Drive by Delavan Lake. The lower unit caught fire, and oily, greasy soot coated the family's belongings.
Nicholas’ family lives paycheck to paycheck. They didn't have renter's insurance or savings, and they had to scramble to find a home. It’s the second time Nicholas has been homeless in about five years.
Nicholas, 18, is expected to graduate from Delavan-Darien High School in June. He is one of 61 homeless students in the Delavan-Darien School District, where homeless enrollment has skyrocketed in the past seven years. Between the 2011-12 and the 2015-16 school years, homeless enrollment in the district swelled more than 764%.
It has since dropped, possibly because homeless families have moved away or because cases of homelessness haven't been identified. But school officials say they see the impacts of homelessness in classrooms every day.
Delavan-Darien isn't alone. Homeless enrollment has grown statewide nearly every year since the 2003-04 school year. Over the past seven years, several districts in Rock and Walworth counties have seen their homeless numbers rise, including Janesville, Beloit, Milton, Whitewater, Clinton and Elkhorn.
Delavan-Darien social workers said the district’s increase in homelessness is largely driven by a lack of affordable housing for low-income residents in Walworth County.
"If something happens, some big financial commitment, then that throws off whatever their cycle was to stay financially stable. … They have to pick and choose what they're able to afford," said Amy Snodie, a social worker at Delavan-Darien.
Access to affordable housing increasingly is an issue in Walworth County. A study last year by the Wisconsin Policy Forum found that 51% of Walworth County renters spend more than 30% of their monthly income on rent.
According to the study, Walworth County ranks among the five most rent-burdened counties in Wisconsin, a result of low incomes and a lack of affordable housing.
Effects of homelessness
Delavan-Darien's homeless enrollment is among the highest in Rock and Walworth counties. In the 2016-17 school year, about 4.9% of the district's students were homeless. Janesville reported about 5.1% that year, and Beloit reported about 8.5%.
By contrast, about 1.8% of Elkhorn's overall enrollment was homeless in the 2016-17 school year, and Milton reported about 1.2%.
Students are considered homeless if they lack a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence, according to the federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act. Under the law, districts must provide homeless students equal access to free public education.
That includes transportation, immediate enrollment, hygiene items, school supplies and free meals, said Lisa McKay, a social worker at Delavan-Darien.
McKay said some of the district's homeless students are classified as unaccompanied youth, meaning they bounce from one residence to the next. Most homeless families are doubled up, meaning they share housing with others.
McKay said homeless students face a host of challenges. Some families that become homeless might end up moving to neighboring communities if no affordable housing is available locally. Students then must figure out transportation and how to access resources, McKay said.
Snodie said attendance for some students drops when they become homeless. That could be because they no longer live in the district or because they need to care for younger siblings while others search for housing, which can be a grueling, time-consuming process, Snodie said.
“When families' basic needs and students' basic needs aren’t being met, school is not the top priority,” McKay said. “It’s getting those basic needs met—that food, that shelter, the clothing piece—before we can even focus on attending at school.”
In an email to The Gazette, a spokesman for the state Department of Public Instruction wrote that the growing number of homeless students across the state appears to be a result of “economic realities" and not a change in reporting methods.
He added that homelessness in schools is not specific to urban areas, and like Delavan-Darien, most homeless students statewide are doubling up. According to the state’s data, more than 77% of homeless students across the state in the 2016-17 school year were sharing a residence with others.
“We see students experiencing homelessness in every single school district in our state,” he said.
'It works out in the end'
Nicholas realized after the fire he didn’t have any deodorant.
“It’s such a simple thing to have. It can be taken away so easily," he said.
Nicholas moved to Delavan with his mom, Mary Mathisen, and sister, Kellie, in 2011. Mary found a home in Delavan with a fenced yard for the same price as the two-bedroom apartment they were renting in Chicago.
In 2014, the landlord moved to Florida and kicked them out, Mary said. Nicholas was in eighth grade, and the family lived in a car for about two months. They eventually found the home on South Shore Drive and lived there until it caught fire March 19.
Since the fire, Mary and her fiancé, Steven Jensen, have been staying in a sunny room in the Delavan Lake Resort with two service dogs. They each make $800 a month from government disability payments.
Lake Lawn Resort in Delavan is paying for the room, and McKay is helping the family find housing. A GoFundMe page for the family had raised more than $1,700 by Sunday.
Nicholas visits the hotel about every other night, but he hasn't slept there. He sleeps at a friend’s house. He tries to keep moving and stay busy, he said.
“It’s weird to have all of this, and one day you turn around and you don’t,” he said.
Nicholas said he feels fortunate in a way. Nobody was hurt, and the things that were destroyed can be replaced, he said.
After the fire, neighbors and the school district donated clothes and money to Nicholas and Kellie, and a family friend is trying to salvage the old clothes and eliminate the smell of smoke.
Nicholas’ math teacher and principal will ask how he is doing, he said, and friends have offered to buy clothes. He said he is stubborn and didn’t want to ask for help. He didn’t want to bother people.
“I can’t imagine what it’s like for no one to ask,” Nicholas said. “If I were to do this all over again, I would tell people I’m homeless. It’s something you shouldn’t be ashamed of. It’s something you should be able to say in confidence.”
Mary said Nicholas’ grades have remained steady since the family was uprooted. He still goes to work in the evenings. He went to prom Saturday night, and he turned 18 on March 30—11 days after the fire.
Nicholas said he would’ve liked to have been home on his birthday.
In her hotel room last week, Mary became emotional when talking about the outpouring of support from the community and the school district. She said the district replaced Nicholas' cap, gown and tassel for free.
Nicholas has a two-year scholarship to Gateway Technical College, Mary said, and he wants to attend Milwaukee School of Engineering or UW-Platteville and study engineering.
“I would like to see him keep going,” Mary said. “I would really love to see the kid go as far as he could go.”
Nicholas’ friends have helped him remain stable, he said, and he has learned that he shouldn't take things for granted. He said he will be ready to help his friends if they ever are in trouble.
“Not everything’s going to be around. … It’s hard to face, but I feel like with the right people, you can take any kind of challenge on. That’s really what matters,” he said.
“It works out in the end. At least that’s what I hope. … People will get what they deserve.”