Columbia Public Schools opens eyes on homelessness


Homeless Columbian James Allen sits on the corner of Broadway and 10th street in downtown Columbia asking for money. Photo by George Frey.

George Frey

ALONE: Homeless senior citizen James Allan sits under the beating sun on the corner of 10th Street and Broadway, holding a sign which reads, ‘homeless please help,’ with a small plastic cup by his side, waiting to be filled with coins. Allan said he was not homeless as a child but in his time on the streets has seen children starve and skip school. In his own words, he believes that the act benefits students, but in the end, that the world needs to pay more attention to the plight of homeless Americans. Photo by George Frey

In 2016 Forbes Magazine, along with Statista, reported there were 550,000 homeless people in the US. Those same publications also reported the top three centers for homelessness in the US, which were New York, N.Y., Los Angeles, Calif., and Seattle, Wash. respectively. In particular, the booming economy in Calif. causes larger amounts of homeless individuals to struggle to meet basic needs.
While much of the country has been experiencing a dramatic increase in homelessness in recent years, Mo. homelessness has decreased. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported in 2017 that 6,037 homeless people lived in Mo., a 2.5 percent decrease from 2016.
That is a lower number compared to previous years, however, homelessness will not go away soon, if ever.
In response, Columbia Public Schools (CPS) implemented a homeless assistance policy, to prompt the passing of Subtitle VII-B of the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act in Congress.
“The McKinney-Vento Act’s broad mandate is to eliminate barriers to school success for children who are homeless, so that they may meet the same challenging academic standards as all other children,” CPS Homeless Coordinator Rita Norwood said in a district-wide email. “The high mobility associated with homelessness can have severe educational consequences.  Families and youth who are homeless are often forced to move frequently due to their search for safe and affordable housing or employment, or to escape unsafe living situations.”
CPS has acknowledged various homelessness situations that are ‘unsafe’ such as students who were living with other relatives or friends. Other situations which Norwood mentioned, included living in motels, limited stay shelters or in unsheltered locations such as the streets or in cars.
On the corner of Broadway and Hitt St. downtown, outside a small US Bank branch, homeless Columbian James Allen sits in the hot, humid Sept. weather, clad in an old baseball cap, ripped khakis and a dirty blue t-shirt, all the while holding watching the world go by and asking for change.

“These kids, homeless teens and children, can’t go to school,” Allen said. “They don’t know how to read or write. They don’t have any opportunities or jobs because they have no education.”

In Columbia, according to the Columbia Tribune, Boone County in 2017 led the Mid-Missouri region in wintertime homelessness with 265 homeless people in total. RBHS hosts some of these homeless individuals as students on campus, and RBHS houses certain staff to help these students.
Registrar Lisa Davis and Outreach counselor Leslie Thalhuber are the staff responsible for helping homeless students at RBHS and have witnessed a variety of students in various circumstances, and with the district tried to provide them ample opportunities to succeed.
“We’ve been working with students for a long time with this, so [The McKinney-Vento Act] is really nothing new,” Thalhuber said. “It helps them not have to switch schools. Like if they have to couch surf and they’re on somebody’s couch that is not in the RBHS district they still have access to RBHS and could even get transportation to school, without having anything interrupted.”
With homeless students always having to move around, they are presented the issue of not having a permanent residence. A residence in this situation is not just a place for them to have a roof over their head, it’s a permanent address, and this can cause issues with students when filling out paperwork or obtaining help from the school. CPS, however, has a way of helping these students, despite the lack of a permanent residence.
“We have lots of students who are here for a little while and then they go somewhere else, so the act basically allows us to keep them enrolled in one school,” Davis said. “If you have a set address the district can provide internet access for those who don’t have it, but if you don’t have an address, that’s hard.”
Norwood believes outreach is an incredibly important aspect of helping not just CPS’ homeless student population, but their families as well.
“There are two aspects to identifying homeless children and youth,” Norwood said. “One is to simply understand which students within the school may meet the definition of homeless so that each of them may be afforded full access to services; the other, referred to as outreach, is to locate potential students not currently within the school system who are homeless and school-age, to ensure that they are enrolled or rejoined to appropriate school programs. Removing barriers is a district-wide, collaborative effort.”