Editor’s note: this is the seventh part of a nine-piece series on homelessness in Fairmont and Marion County.
There are more than 10,500 students in West Virginia who meet the federal definition of homeless, and 76 of them are in Marion County.
Children could be considered invisible in a broader discussion of living without shelter because they are not seen on city streets or caught up in behavior that is otherwise associated with homelessness.
“There are some [children] that find themselves where their parents all of a sudden don’t want to take care of them anymore,” said Stephanie Travelstead, home and school liaison for Marion County Schools. “It typically works out to be high school kids. It’s a problem nationwide.”
Passed by Congress in 1987, the McKinney-Vento Act ensures students have the right to go to school even when they are homeless or don’t have a permanent address.
Their parents may be couchsurfing, living with a relative, at motels or some other non-permanent arrangement.
Travelstead is tasked with making sure the county’s 76 homeless students’ needs are being met and they have an equal chance to thrive in their studies along with other students.
“My job is to identify any problems, particularly with the homeless students and their families,” Travelstead said. “I give them the resources they might need so that they can succeed in school.
“That’s how I find a lot of homeless students; if they’re not coming to school that might be the reason why.”
But Travelstead is not alone in carrying out the task of counting Marion County Schools’ homeless students. The head count begins at each school with its administrators and staff.
“We do have the policy to follow about the homeless students,” said Randy Farley, superintendent of Marion County Schools. “We look at basically what we could do, make sure that people have information for ways that we can assist them.”
According to Farley, there are methods the school district uses to not only make contact with students who don’t have permanent housing, but get them the help they need from local organizations so they can succeed. While it is normally Travelstead who identifies the students, sometimes a student will confide in a teacher or counselor who will notify Travelstead or the administration.
“It can be different ones at different times,” Farley said. “It could be a counselor in school, it could be a counselor out of school, it could be a teacher.”
Students can experience homelessness for a number of reasons, but she said one of the most common causes is a high schooler who gets kicked out of their home.
“We do have what we call unaccompanied youth,” Travelstead said. “That’s just students that are not in the physical custody of their parents. I’ve had 16-year-olds who have been in that boat before. Sometimes they’re in the foster care system and they age out, and now they’re left homeless.”
Whether they are over or under age 18, the students have to find a place to stay, and find themselves taking refuge with a friend’s family or with a local shelter. Sometimes a friend or other family member will take them in.
“A lot of times they’ll move in with a friend,” Travelstead said. “Then their friend’s family will be their guardian, and all the parent has to do is just sign and have a paper notarized that they give custody of their child to the other person. I’ve had that happen several times.”
Tim Dawson, shelter manager at Scott’s Place, sees high school aged kids come to the shelter because they get to a point where don’t know what to do.
“What’s happening with the youth is they have no idea what to do when they turn 18,” Dawson said. “We see a populace of – not too many – LGBT kids where the parents don’t want them in the house, they have rejected them and they are kind of thrown into the system.”
Dawson said kids homelessness can cause stress, which can lead to other mental health problems for the teen. He said this could happen to people who identify as LGBT.
“There is something called adverse childhood experiences which is childhood trauma, abuse but also things they have seen, witnessed or had happen to them,” Dawson said. “This almost consistently results in adult mental health issues which can contribute to homelessness.
“Based on everything that I have studied I would say if you want to reduce homelessness, take care of your kids.”
Travelstead has seen this first hand, along with the emotional and mental effects homelessness or even abandonment has on a child.
“It’s stressful because I’ve seen what happens,” Travelstead said. “It’s a hard life.”
No matter the case or reason for being homeless, Travelstead attempts to get the student help with finding shelter first and foremost. She said, in many cases, a student will not know what to do in their situation. If they are able, Travelstead may take a student to a government agency to obtain an ID or a driver’s license.
“A lot of times, they’ll move in with a friend,” Travelstead said. “I do what I can to make sure that they get the resources that they need. The DHHR, I’ll take them there so they can sign up for everything.”
The school administrators work with local organizations for a number of reasons, which provides them with additional resources used to help kids without a home. Usually, Travelstead is the one who utilizes the resources to help a student.
“The Family Resource Network keeps a book of social services that help people in the county,” Farley said. “We send the homeschool liaison to hook up with these families to make sure that if they need services of some kind, we know what we can do with them.”
On its own, the school administration also has resources such as clothes for students to take if needed.
“We do have clothing item vouchers if they need them,” Farley said. “Typically they are coming to us and they are coming from a shelter like a home they would go to if need be.”
The problem also involves money because sometimes a student will move out of their home county because of their situation. However, when that happens, school districts can bus them to their original school in order to maintain their academic career in the same school.
“To keep things consistent because oftentimes they are moving from place to place, a homeless child can stay at their school of origin,” Travelstead said. “If they are in a situation where they have been evicted and now they have to move into a shelter and it’s not in their attendance area, then we will bus them, depending if it’s in the child’s best interest or not.”
Having worked in her position for 10 years now, Travelstead doesn’t know what kind of solution exists to shrink the population of homeless students, but said it oftentimes falls out of the hands of school administrators when a student turns 18 or stops attending school.
Dawson also said he is unsure of a solution, but escape routes from a life of homelessness are becoming more limited.
“One of the biggest opportunities for these guys when they’re young to get out of it and escape poverty has always been the military,” Dawson said.
Conversely, Travelstead believes that if the problem of homeless students continues to exist, which she suspects it will, schools should begin to have more classes that teach kids how to handle some of life’s more daunting tasks, such as managing money and career preparedness.
“What I see here in Fairmont, I hypothetically think that maybe some life skills classes could be helpful maybe at the high school level,” Travelstead said. “Just things people really aren’t taught in school anymore, so I think learning those may help. A lot of people just don’t manage their money well.
“I wish I had more solutions.”