Back-to-school time tests homeless families

School costs, especially for children in middle and high school, can be daunting for a lot of families. But clothes, backpacks, $75 yearbooks, supplies and other expenses can be insurmountable costs for homeless families without support from the community.

Such as driver’s ed.

“That’s one thing we never could have afforded,” said Jennifer Clifford, who spent two years in the Boise Rescue Mission’s City Light’s New Life addiction recovery program and now lives with her daughter in the shelter’s transitional housing.

Driver’s education programs cost $220, plus another $20 for a learner’s permit. The Organization to Assist the Homeless Student, better known as OATHS, is paying her daughter’s driver’s ed bill.

OATHS is one of the dozens of local organizations, shelters and school districts that make up an interwoven network that tries to ensure homeless students have enough supports to stay on pace with their peers who live more stable lives. There are so many programs and efforts, in fact, that local districts have employees in charge of coordinating it all.

Clifford works in City Light’s summer program for kids and wants to return to college to study health sciences. Her daughter is entering her junior year in high school. Clifford is quick to say her life is good, or far better than it was when she realized the depth of her addiction to pain pills and entered the shelter’s recovery program.

But school costs remain a challenge, even with community help. Having older children complicates things. They are attuned to brand names. They pay attention to what people’s shoes and hair look like.

“Everyone can tell if your backpack comes from Wal-Mart,” said Clifford. Her daughter worked all summer and saved enough money to buy her own high-end backpack so people wouldn’t know she’s homeless.

Clifford is grateful for charitable programs, including City Light, that have allowed her “to breathe” instead of always being in defensive mode, she said, struggling to keep her family in a safe home and her children in school.


Staff members in school districts keep in close contact with one another, said Dawn Tolan, district student services consultant with the Boise School District. Children who are homeless tend to be mobile, moving from district to district as their living situations change. It’s common for counselors in different districts to know and work with the same kids and families.

The federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Act, the law that guarantees protections such as a student’s right to enroll in school even without a permanent address, defines a homeless student as one without “regular, fixed or adequate” shelter, said Tolan.

“A family gets evicted and has to move in with other family members. Students in that family are considered homeless. Or there could be a teenager who leaves home for whatever reason. That teenager is considered homeless. There are a lot of scenarios of what homelessness is. Many would agree with them, many would disagree. But it’s not a great way of life,” said Tolan.

Students waiting to be placed in foster care, living in motels, or campgrounds, also are considered homeless according to federal law.

The most consistent challenge for districts providing services for homeless students is transportation, said Tolan. The issue comes up consistently at the national educational conferences she attends. “It’s universal.”

The McKinney-Vento Act guarantees transportation to school and homeless students’ right to stay in the school they’re in, or their “school of origin,” even if they find shelter in another district, as long as that doesn’t mean an unreasonably long commute.

“We strategize to get them to school,” said Tolan. That involves working out bus routes — and sometimes more personal systems. “Last year, at one school we had students who were living with relatives. Their principal picked them up every morning and brought them to school,” said Tolan.

Other districts sometimes use taxis to get homeless kids to school when bus routes don’t reach them, said Tolan. A homeless student may move to the Nampa District but want to stay in a Boise school.

“We split the transportation cost with the other district,” said Tolan. “For example, Nampa may pay for a taxi to bring the student halfway, then the Boise district will have a bus to pick them up and bring them the rest of the way.”

The federal law will provide money for gas vouchers for homeless students old enough to drive themselves to school, or to help subsidize costs if they have a family member or friend who’s willing to drive them.

Beyond federal and state programs, the Boise District relies on other supports, including the Safe Fund program to support students. It’s a pool of money that social workers, counselors, school nurses and the district’s homeless student liaisons can use to pay for homeless or low-income students’ dental work, glasses, musical instruments, even driver’s education and cap and gown rentals for graduation and college-admission test fees.

The district also partners with the city to offer Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing grant money to help families pay rent and utilities to help them stay in their current housing so they don’t become homeless.


Homeless students represent about 3 percent of the students in the Boise District, about one percent in the West Ada District. Statewide, the percentage is just over 2 percent.

The Caldwell School District has one of the highest percentages of homeless students in Southwest Idaho at around 6 percent of its student body in the 2014-2015 school year. Like other districts, Caldwell relies on a combination of supports to help homeless students.

The district has a dress code, requiring collared shirts and banning colors associated with gangs. Students who need money for clothes can get help from McKinney-Vento funds. Deseret Industries also donates clothing vouchers to the district, said Dawn Jensen, data coordinator for federal projects. The Caldwell School District buys school supplies for students in grades K-5 regardless of income. The district relies on charitable organizations to provide supplies for older students. The Elks, Wal-Mart, United Way and Idaho Power all have donated to the district, said Jensen.

Homeless students in the Caldwell District also get help from the P-16 Caldwell Education Project. The project began in 2011 after a United Way study of local school districts found that Caldwell District had the lowest percentage of students going on to college. United Way, Idaho Voices for Children, the Pesky Learning Center, the College of Idaho and others are partners in P-16, which provides early childhood education, mentoring and more to encourage children to stay in school — and stay connected to resources.

Like other districts, Caldwell uses grant money to provide gas vouchers for homeless students to offset the cost of transportation.

The West Ada District, by contrast, has the lowest percentage of homeless students in the area at just over 1 percent.

“When the economy fell (during the 2010-2011 school year), that’s when I saw my homelessness spike,” said Jeanne Buschine, district coordinator of counseling services, drug education coordinator and homeless grant liaison. “We had lots of kids with parents experiencing foreclosures, parents losing their jobs.”

Homeless numbers have leveled out as the economy has, said Buschine.

“The community is supportive. I give a nod to churches in this area. When people know there’s a need, there’s nearly always a place to go,” she said.

The Cathedral of the Rockies’ “Mirror Image” program, which provides hygiene items for secondary students, is one example.

“We fill out an order form. The program provides make-up for girls, the right kind of shampoo and deodorant. It’s kind of like a food bank for hygiene,” said Buschine.

While the district can’t provide housing, it can help families find it. The district has connected students and families to Hays Shelter Home run by the Idaho Youth Ranch, and other shelters, said Buschine. West Ada also relies on the Boise District’s Self Rescue Manual, a guide to all resources available to people in need in Ada County, including food banks, clothing resources and free immunizations.

The West Ada District has a new resource to help homeless students through the Meridian Education Foundation. Housing Plus High School Equals Success is a program for older students, ages 18 to 21, still enrolled in high school but not living with their parents, classified as “unaccompanied homeless youth.”

“Sometimes parents don’t want them around. Sometimes parents move, but they don’t take their kid. Sometimes parents have substance-abuse issues, leaving these kids entirely on their own,” said Buschine.

Housing Plus High School Equals Success provides a stipend for volunteer families willing to provide homes for such students while they’re in school. District staff screens the families to make sure they can provide a healthy atmosphere. The community is stepping up to support the program, said Buschine. A Dutch Bros. Coffee fundraiser, a Meridian Chamber of Commerce Legacy grant and other donations have put $15,000 in the program’s coffers.

Three students benefited from the program during the past school year. It’s unclear how many students will need the program this year.