A magazine cover. The title reads "The Homefront." The subhead reads "Confronting Kalamazoo's Homelessness Crisis."

In Case You Missed It: NowKalamazoo took an in-depth look into the Kalamazoo County homelessness crisis in a Nov. 2019 special edition called The Homefront. Since the crisis continues, we are republishing the articles below. Click on the picture of the cover to read a digital version of the magazine.

‘State of Emergency’

School officials in Kalamazoo County are fighting hard as increasing numbers of children experience the trauma of homelessness and extreme poverty.

The Homefront

NowKalamazoo explored the homelessness crisis in Kalamazoo County in the Nov. 2019 special publication The Homefront.

When an adult becomes homeless, regardless of the reasons, it is stressful and full of anxiety. Children of that adult can see those concerns, take them on themselves, and it begins to interfere with basically everything in their budding lives — especially at school.

“It has a huge, lifelong impact on kids,” Sarah Drumm, coordinator of the Kalamazoo County Great Start Collaborative, which trains area school staff, works with parents, and helps children as old as eight and as young as newborns in intensive care, told The Homefront.

It’s a significant risk to a growing number of students — perhaps the most vulnerable population with the least opportunity to impact their situation — in Kalamazoo County.

“It’s a state of emergency in the Kalamazoo area,” says David Davis, Paramount Charter Academy’s school family liaison. “It is happening rapidly.”

There were at least 950 homeless children in families and another 65 homeless people under 18 years old without families inKalamazoo County, according to a 2018 federally mandated count conducted for the local Continuum of Care, the planning body that coordinates homelessness services funding and housing efforts. Officials involved say the count is surely not representative of the area’s true homeless population.

Indeed, data published by the Michigan Department of Education show 1,396 students of the Kalamazoo Regional Education Service Agency’s (KRESA) countywide intermediate school district experienced homelessness in the 2018-2019 school year — a 10% increase from the previous year.

The Numbers of Homeless Students in Kalamazoo County Public Schools*

Gull Lake3730
Vicksburg 1239

*Includes districts that are partially in Kalamazoo County
** The ISD numbers overlap with some districts listed

Source: Mischooldata.org, kalamazoocounty.com

“Trauma such as homelessness can change the makeup of a developing brain, leading to lifelong educational implications before a child even starts school. Because of this, the achievement gap that is seen in high school is already observable in children as young as 9 months old,” the Michigan League for Public Policy wrote in a June 2019 report on homelessness of Michigan’s youngest kids.

With the depth and complexity of childhood homelessness and extreme poverty now seen as factor for success at school, districts throughout the county are focused on identifying and treating the causes and consequences of such trauma.

“It has a lot to do with poverty, to do with inequity, with trauma that parents may have experienced and are passing that on to their children,” says Drumm.

Trauma Alters Brain Development

A home provides, in effect, stability and physical safety. Removing that creates an unpredictability that puts a child on high alert, raising anxiety levels.

“A child needs to feel safe to thrive,” says James Henry, a social work professor and co-founder and director of the Children’s Trauma Assessment Center at Western Michigan University’s Unified Clinics, one of the few places in the state that specializes in childhood trauma and assesses children from just a few months old up to age 17. “So when shelter can’t be guaranteed, it’s very hard for that to happen.”

Often times, keeping the anxiety, anger, or depression that frequently accompanies homelessness hidden from children can be a tall order for any adult in what’s likely one of the most stressful times in their lives.

Significant research has shown that experiencing trauma as a child — like homelessness and poverty — literally alters brain development, Henry and Drumm both say. The child learns and prioritizes the need for survival instead of being a kid, deploying intuitive defensive mechanisms, and showing signs of developmental delays.

Drumm has seen it when kids who can barely walk have begun visibly “checking out” if they’re not getting the attention they need from adults, especially primary caregivers. For example, if they are strapped into a stroller for too long of stretches at a time, such as when a parent needs to concentrate on traversing the myriad intakes and documentation processes required to receive assistance to avoid or escape homelessness.

“From a parent’s perspective, they are focused on survival” of keeping a child safe, Drumm says. “Little ones two-, three-, four-, five-years-old are at the stage where they are forming attachments. They are so dependent on the adults around them.”

Combine that with the nerve-wracking uncertainty or risk of shelter and food scarcity that nearly 40% of Kalamazoo County families face, according to a 2019 United Way report, then “that attachment impacts literacy levels and ability to do well in a classroom,” Drumm says, “then they don’t trust the adults they are then left with in school.”

Michigan had just over 39,000 homeless school-aged children in the 2016-2017 school year, according to the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness. The State of Michigan says that number was closer to 35,000 that school year. State data shows the number has decreased since then to 33,000 in the 2018-2019 school year. Still the data show there’s no time to rest: homeless students have lower graduation and higher high school drop-out rates than non-homeless students.

“Lack of safe, affordable housing is becoming more of a norm than I would like to see,” David Artley, who chairs the Kalamazoo County Public Housing Commission, told The Homefront. He says the commission has housed nearly 300 families with school age children since 2016, when a small countywide millage took effect.

A 2018 study by the University of Michigan showed that Kalamazoo Public Schools (KPS) has had one of the highest rates of student homelessness in the state, with 930 in the 2018-2019 school year.

Then-KPS Superintendent Michael Rice told The Homefront that although the number of homeless students in the district — defined in the study as having a lack of a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence — took some by surprise when the report was released, the data needs to be looked at with some context. (Rice has since been named superintendent of all Michigan public schools.)

“All else being equal, we’d expect our total population of homeless students to be in the top three,” Rice says. It’s likely higher than that, Rice said, because many older homeless students hide their situation out of shame.

The district is the 13th largest and third poorest in the state behind Grand Rapids and Detroit, based on the number of students who participate in free or reduced-cost lunch programs. About 40% of Paramount’s 240 or so students are at risk of homelessness, Davis says, and the signs of the trauma are quick to materialize.

“That starts as early as young 5s,” says Davis. “We see a lot of students are doubling up — living with other families.” Then comes the disengagement from adults, other kids, and school lessons — at a time when students are typically easier to enthrall with learning. “You can tell they are in reactive mode instead of proactive, worrying about their next meals and where they are going to stay or who is going to pick them up from school, not their academics.”

Paramount has expanded its free breakfast and lunch program as a result, and teachers hand out snacks during the day. Kalamazoo Public Schools this year expanded its free hot lunch program to all elementary and middle school students under a U.S. Department of Agriculture program.

Taking into consideration the long-term effects of trauma at such a young age, the success of school-based intervention could have a multiplier effect on preventing education drop outs, entry into the criminal justice system and ultimately become a homeless adult.

It makes the work in Kalamazoo-area school systems that much more vital and complex, even for the seemingly small acts by schools and support organizations, like covering costs for prom and graduation clothes or transportation.

It also has led educators and school personnel to find as many students as possible to help — another potential reason for the county’s high figure compared to elsewhere around the state. Programs by KRESA and other districts in the county help train teachers, administrative assistants, and building liaisons to look for the signs: An unkempt appearance, wearing the same clothes day after day, body odor, or irregular attendance, among other identifiers.

The consequences of not ending childhood homelessness and extreme poverty are seen throughout a student’s school career. Kids who experience chronic trauma have trouble with abstract thinking, problem solving and executive brain function, which requires working memory, mental flexibility and self-control to all work together. All this adds up to a much more challenging educational experience for homeless kids and other children exposed to trauma.

“Attendance is a huge part. It becomes a norm to miss a certain amount of school. It’s almost a chain reaction. Once you experience it,” says Davis, “you are more likely to be held back which leads to, over time, lack of engagement in school and higher chances of dropping out. It’s all correlated.”

There is “likely a correlation” between not being at school and reduced academic performance, but “we cannot say that definitively,” says Cindy Green, the assistant superintendent for teaching and learning services at KPS. “You can’t label a learning disability in a child if that child is chronically absent.”

Still, according to state data for the 2018-2019 school year, non-homeless students in KPS had a 93% attendance rate and homeless students were at 84%.

Drumm, who works for KRESA, says their countywide outreach to schools, parents, physicians and service providers that interact with kids and families experiencing homelessness and other trauma helps create a holistic understanding of how to improve the everyday lives of kids.

Early Intervention Is Key

The key, she says, is to assess a child as early as possible if the signs point to potential homelessness.

“Kids are more open at that (young) age,” Drumm says. “They are much more likely to disclose what’s happening at home than an older, high school-aged kid who may feel a sense of shame admitting that they don’t have a home of their own.”

Having extra support staff in a school — social workers, counselors, and other personnel — who are there to build trust with these students, ask open-ended questions and create a climate of healing, goes a long way toward communicating to the school community that trauma is taken seriously and steps are in place to deal with it in a kind, supportive manner.

“The research shows us you can work on higher-level growth and lower-level needs at the same time,” Rice says. “It’s just a lot harder to do than if your base needs are being consistently met.”

In 2019, however, Michigan’s state government added another risk factor for students — and school districts struggling to help them — experiencing homelessness, poverty, or any other trauma that can impact brain development and, thus learning: if students are not proficient in reading by third grade they are likely to be held back, which doubles down on the trauma and shame.

“I’m a huge advocate of having … those who oversee schools come in, see classrooms, walk the hallways,” says Davis. “You can’t fully understand it if you don’t see it yourself and aren’t on the front lines like we are. That’s the only way to get change.”

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