State's student homeless population doubles

For a few hours after school, Ryan Johnson is just like most 16-year-olds. He lounges on the couch with his favorite Xbox game or checks his Facebook page.

But then reality sets in. He decamps from his cousins' house for the Howard County cold-weather shelter. Dinner is a meal with his father and 20 other homeless people. He goes to bed early, on a green plastic mat next to strangers, who also have no other place to go in one of the state's wealthiest counties.


"It has been really hard," said Ryan, a junior at Wilde Lake High School in Columbia. "I look at it like a detention I have to do every day, even though I didn't do anything wrong."

Ryan's experience is becoming increasingly common. The number of homeless students in Maryland has more than doubled in the past five years, rising from 6,721 to 14,117 last school year, according to the Maryland State Department of Education.


The largest increases in homeless populations are notable for where they are occurring: in the suburban rings around cities. Anne Arundel County has seen a 231 percent increase in homeless students since 2005, Baltimore County a 140 percent increase and Howard County a 150 percent increase. The increase in Baltimore City, which still has the largest number of homeless students, was 75 percent.

Upper-middle-class families who once lived in $500,000 houses are telling school officials that they have lost their homes. In one case, school officials said, a family lived in the woods after losing their place. And many are temporarily living with family or friends, moving from house to house.

Nationally, the number of homeless children rose 38 percent from 2007 to 2010, including those too young to attend school. A new report by the National Center on Family Homelessness found that the recession left one in 45 children in the United States homeless.

The recession and the housing crisis led to widespread foreclosures and hit family finances hard. In Maryland, it can be particularly tough to recover as some areas lack affordable housing and the cost of living is higher. According to one study, the income needed for a two-bedroom apartment here is $24.43 per hour, or more than three times the minimum wage.


And the problem isn't abating with the slow economic recovery. Several suburban Baltimore districts reported last week that the number of homeless students is expected to be higher this school year than last.

School often becomes the only constant in a homeless child's life. At one school in Baltimore County, all homeless students are assigned a "buddy," whether it is the principal or the custodian, to check on them once or twice a week.

Student homelessness also poses a challenge to school districts, which must provide transportation from wherever a child is living. Many schools also take on the task of linking homeless families to social services and charities, helping them find coats for their children or a place to spend the night.

"Schools are the most stable place they can be," said Barbara Duffield, policy director for the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth. "The role schools have to play in responding to youth homelessness is really important."

A year ago, Ryan had his own room at his mother's Columbia apartment. Then their $938-a-month rent rose, and his mother had to move because she couldn't afford to stay in Howard County. Ryan's mother could not be reached for comment.

When Ryan's mother moved to a more affordable place in Baltimore City, Ryan opted to stay behind to finish high school in a better school system, said his dad, Ryan Johnson Sr. Ryan and his father moved in with an uncle, but eventually the place began to feel too small for the two families. When the county's cold-weather shelter opened in November, the Johnsons packed their belongings into their car and moved out, expecting the situation to be temporary.

'Nontraditional homeless'

For many, the path to homelessness is unexpected, according to social workers. Carl Love, a homelessness liaison in Baltimore County, said some families lose their places when the landlord of the property they are renting is foreclosed on. Then they may become homeless because of a lack of affordable rental housing in the county, he said, or because their credit rating prevents them from getting another apartment.

And affordable housing in the county is becoming increasingly scarce, he said, pointing out an area where $300,000 houses replaced low-cost housing.

In Anne Arundel County, some people purchased homes they couldn't afford or took on mortgages with interest rates that increase over time, and now are facing foreclosure. Lynne Weise, the homelessness liaison in Anne Arundel County, said she has seen it happen to people who live in $500,000 houses in Broadneck or on the edge of affluent Severna Park.

"I am seeing an increase in the more nontraditional homeless, people who you never could have imagined being homeless," she said.

Stacie Whitaker-Harris, a 36-year-old mother of three with a bachelor's degree, once lived a middle-class life and never expected to lose her Baltimore home, which happened in 2008.

She said she was unable to find a job to support her three children. They moved in with various family members until she said it was too difficult to squeeze into homes with already large families.

"Everybody's homes were pretty much full," she said. "I didn't want to put more of a burden on them."

Whitaker-Harris' son, 15-year-old Chae Harris, said he enjoyed being around his cousins but that it all became too much. "I don't like living in a house with a whole bunch of people," he said. "It becomes too cluttered, not that much space."

They depended on family until a spot opened at INNterim, a temporary housing program in Baltimore County for homeless mothers. "We come from various backgrounds," Whitaker-Harris said of the INNterim residents. "A lot of women were like me. They had bachelor's degrees."

A year ago, Whitaker-Harris and her children moved into an apartment in Owings Mills. She has started her own business, providing workshops and inspirational speeches.

INNterim provided a much-needed safety net. If she hadn't gotten into the program, "I don't know what would've happened," she said.

But for some homeless families, space in a shelter isn't available, and employment may not provide enough financial stability for a family to pay for housing.

Cathy Henry, a pupil personnel worker with Howard County who tracks homeless students, said one family moved into the woods in Laurel when they had no other place to stay. While the father had a job and the mother looked after the kids, she said the family couldn't afford housing.

Of the 1,700 homeless students in Baltimore County this year, about 1,300 come from families staying in someone else's home. Another 185 students are teenagers who don't have a parent or guardian taking care of them.

In Howard, school officials say, 320 students are doubling up with relatives or friends. In addition, some students are living at shelters, while others are living in motel rooms and a dozen are living outside, under bridges or in cars.


The role of schools


With more homeless families struggling to find shelter, students who find temporary places outside their school district pose a large challenge to schools.

Under a 1987 federal law, school systems must keep homeless students in their original schools if parents want them to remain there. So a student who moves to another part of the school district or to another county is supposed to be bused to his or her home school. School systems said those transportation costs can be a strain.

In Anne Arundel County, for instance, Weise said $52,000 of the $64,000 she gets in state money for homeless student services goes toward getting them to school and back to wherever they are staying.

In Howard County, of the 202 homeless students who have special transportation arrangements, about 50 of those students come from out of the county, from as far as East Baltimore, Pasadena and parts of Prince George's County.

Keith Scroggins, chief operating officer for Baltimore schools, said the city uses buses and cabs, which can cost up to $40 a ride, that travel as far as Bel Air and Washington to pick up students.

"When you consider for the last two years, we've had an increase of 200 or more homeless students, it can mean somewhere in the neighborhood of a $2 million addition to our budget," he said.

Although it took her son 45 minutes to get to Mount Royal Elementary and Middle School in Baltimore, Whitaker-Harris said she didn't want to transfer her children from their schools in the city. "I didn't want to uproot them from all of their friends and the teachers who knew them," she said.

Schools are often a hub to provide outreach to families with other unmet needs.

Administrators in a number of counties say that nonprofits, churches, and teachers and school staff have opened up their wallets and their hearts to meet needs that have grown exponentially in recent years.

"School employees paid for one family to stay in a motel for a week," Weise said. School staff and teachers "are always putting their hands in their own pockets to support their families. It makes a big difference."

Shady Spring Elementary in Baltimore County passed out 43 coats this year provided by a donor. One boy was given a used coat, but turned to the volunteer and said that if there was another child who needed it more, he could do without because he was "used to being cold," said school counselor Wendy Carver.

Shady Spring Principal Kenneth Dunaway said he remembers one day in his office when he was surrounded by students trying on new shoes provided by a charity.

And school systems face the challenge of ensuring that homeless students perform well academically even as their lives outside of school are unpredictable — right down to where they sleep at night.

"When you're not sure where your next meal is coming from, living in a cramped space, it's kind of hard to have school as a first priority," said Craig Cummings, the Howard County school system's homeless-student liaison.

'A lot of trauma'

National studies show that homeless students are more likely than any others to have mental health problems, including depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder.

"Most of the time you are looking at a lot of loss, a lot of trauma," said Duffield of the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth.

Carver said she often sees homeless students suffering from anxiety at Shady Spring, the school that assigns students a buddy.

She said one student wouldn't get off the school bus in the morning, crying and saying he wanted his mother and that his stomach hurt. Another student just can't cope some days.

"He shuts down. He won't move. He won't get up from his chair," Carver said, adding that the student is working with a counselor and getting better.

About 5 percent to 7 percent of Shady Spring's enrollment is homeless, largely because the school is near one of the county's shelters, where a school bus stops every day. Last week, 30 of 625 students in the school were homeless, said Carver.

The school has organized a range of services for students, providing them with coats, shoes and Christmas presents, and offering counseling.

Whitaker-Harris, the mother in Baltimore County, said her children have coped but certainly face obstacles. Her daughter, Stashauna, was a sophomore at Baltimore Freedom Academy when they lost their home, but she graduated as the class valedictorian.

However, after her daughter started studying at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania, where she got a full academic scholarship, she had to take a year off from school.

"She had such an emotional challenge," Whitaker-Harris said, adding that her daughter was worried about leaving her mother, little brother and sister.

Her son Chae, who now attends Cristo Rey Jesuit High School in Baltimore, where he has a partial scholarship, was able to cope with the situation. "We had to learn how to deal with it," he said. "Get from day to day. We had to keep moving on. What I did was go to school and get through it."

But he said he mostly didn't tell his classmates that he was homeless because "some aren't very supportive." Still, he didn't want to burden his mother.

"I wanted to get over it and be strong for my mom," he said. "I talked to someone else about it, like my godfather."

Ryan, the junior at Wilde Lake High School in Howard County, said he has not had too much trouble concentrating at school, but the daily grind of shelter life is not easy. While he can get help from a math tutor some nights, he must get computer assignments done before going to the shelter. And once at the shelter, it can be noisy.

He's the oldest kid at the shelter, which comes with its own responsibilities. He sometimes chases after a 3-year-old named DeShawn.

"This is different," Ryan said at the shelter, which rotates between church congregations in the county.

One week, he slept on the floor of St. Paul's Parish, perched above Ellicott City's historic Main Street. During another, he and his father had difficulty finding the long driveway to the Church at Covenant Park, off Centennial Lane near sprawling Centennial Park and newer housing developments.

They must leave the shelter about 6 a.m., and Ryan relishes the little bit of time at his cousins' place in Columbia, near where he had lived with his mother. He and his dad head back to the old neighborhood, where he once had his own room, his own bed and what he now says was his most prized possession: his own house key.

Baltimore Sun reporters Liz Bowie and Erica L. Green contributed to this article.