Utah grapples with persistent problem: homeless students
Poverty • Despite improving economy, the ranks of homeless schoolchildren still swollen as charitable groups try to provide supplies.
Published: August 7, 2014 11:13AM
Updated: August 7, 2014 10:18AM
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Scott Sommerdorf | The Salt Lake Tribune Jessica Dafron speaks about her circumstances and how she and her kids came to be at the Road Home, Wednesday, August 6, 2014. The economy may be rebounding but homeless kids in Salt Lake City still abound. The Road Home has 50 percent more kids this year than in 2008. The shelter is seeking back-to-school donations.

Jessica Daffron never imagined she and her three kids would spend months living in The Road Home homeless shelter.

But a harsh sequence of events — job and apartment loss, sickness and her fiancé’s imprisonment — led them to the squat brick building on the edge of downtown.

“I never thought I’d be here, but it just made it really hard trying to take care of things, and I just needed someone to help with a fresh start,” said the petite 31-year-old mother.

Tellingly, Daffron’s children have adapted relatively well to life in the shelter, she said, partly because there are so many other kids there.

Despite the rebounding economy, the shelter is seeing no decrease in the number of kids it helps. In fact, it is serving 50 percent more children than in 2010. It seems to be part of a nationwide trend that has The Road Home and other charitable organizations seeking more back-to-school donations this year.

The shelter has placed “Apple Trees” at locations around Salt Lake City and surrounding areas covered with apples bearing the names of children, their ages and their needs. A donor can choose an apple, buy the clothes and supplies and bring them back to the tree for collection by the shelter.

“Our kids, they’re not excited to go back to school, and part of it is embarrassment that they’re living in a shelter and their classmates will find out and they’ll get bullied and teased,” said Celeste Eggert, The Road Home’s development director. “This [supply effort] makes our kids feel just like any other kids and it actually gets them excited about school.”

Eggert said The Road Home served 1,348 kids in fiscal 2014 — about the same number as the year before. That’s about a 180 percent jump, however, from the number of children the shelter hosted in 2008, the beginning of the economic slide.

Numbers statewide also seem less-than encouraging. In 2012-2013, the state reported 12,383 homeless students, down from the prior year, but up from three years before then. Those numbers include youngsters living with extended family members, in hotels, shelters, cars, parks, campgrounds, other public places and places without running water, heat or electricity.

Eggert doesn’t see any one particular reason why more Utah families are looking for help. A lot of it, she said, has to do with continued job losses, housing costs and health-care expenses. “It certainly started off with the downturn in the economy,” Eggert said, “and it just continues to persist.”

Nationwide, the numbers look even worse.

School districts reported 1.17 million homeless students in the 2011-2012 school year, up from 939,903 two years earlier, according to the National Center for Homeless Education.

Diana Bowman, director of the national center, said the numbers have been rising ever since she started working with the program 15 years ago, though the rate seems to have slowed, and a bit of it might be due to better data collection.

“Generally, what we hear are the long-term impacts of unemployment,” Bowman said, “and … not a lot of affordable housing being developed — you do find that the families are still experiencing homelessness and finding it difficult to find those adequate, affordable places to live.”

Many school districts get federal money to help them meet homeless students’ needs, but those dollars go only so far, leading to drives from organizations such as The Road Home. Whether they get federal money or not, Bowman said, schools must have liaisons to work with homeless families, must allow homeless children to enroll even if they lack proof of residency and must provide free meals, among other things.

“There are programs in schools that address the needs of children in poverty,” she said, “but the needs exceed what the capacities of the schools are to make sure everybody has what they need.”

Trouble finding appropriate housing is part of the reason Daffron said she and her kids remain at The Road Home. She has secured funding for housing, but she doesn’t want to move her kids just anywhere. She doesn’t want them around drugs or gangs.

“My kids have seen enough here,” Daffron said Wednesday before heading to the Salt Lake City Main Library to fill out more apartment applications and work on obtaining her GED. Her kids spent the day at a Boys & Girls Club, engaged in activities away from the shelter.

Daffron is grateful for back-to-school supply drives such as the one organized by The Road Home.

When it comes to new clothes and supplies, her 8-year-old daughter loves princesses and Hello Kitty. Her 13-year-old son has an affinity for skateboards. And her 10-year-old son is into anything having to do with snowboarder and skateboarder Shaun White.

But she said they’ll be happy with anything. They need new pants for winter, and their shoes are wearing down.

“They’re great with everything they get,” Daffron said, “and they’re usually pretty appreciative.”

lschencker@sltrib.com

How to help:

Various organizations are holding back-to-school drives. Here is information about a couple of them:

• The Road Home has placed Apple Trees at various Old Navy, DownEast, Staples and Payless Shoe Source locations around Salt Lake City and surrounding areas. Donors can select apples from the trees with kids’ names, ages and needs, buy those items and then return them to the location of the tree. The program runs through Aug. 11. To learn more go to www.theroadhomeappletree.com.

• United Way of Salt Lake collects school supplies from various drives from June 1 to Aug. 31 to stuff book bags on its annual Stuff the Bus Day of Caring event Sept. 11. The nonprofit organization distributes the bags to the 19 schools it partners with in Salt Lake, Tooele, Davis and Summit counties.

Usually the organization aims for 5,000 bags, but this year it’s distributing 8,500 because of the additional schools with which United Way is partnering. The group is asking for the following supplies: pencils, pens, markers, highlighters, 16-count crayons, glue sticks, erasers, spiral notebooks and pocket folders. Drop-off locations include Discovery Gateway children’s museum, 444 W. 100 South, Sept. 2 to Sept. 5 from 8 a.m. to 10 a.m.; Sheraton Hotel, 150 W. 500 S. Salt Lake City, through Aug. 31, 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.; and United Way of Salt Lake, 257 E. 200 South, Suite 300, Salt Lake City, through Aug. 31, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.