HANCOCK COUNTY — The number of homeless students in Indiana rose significantly from 2008 to 2013, according to data collected recently by the Indiana Department of Education.
And Hancock County is no exception.
During that six-year period, local school districts noticed a slight uptick in the number of students who lack a consistent residence to return home to each day, growing from 25 to 37 students, according to a report released Monday by the Indiana Youth Institute, a nonprofit promoting healthy childhood development. Those students might be bouncing from house to house each night, staying with friends or relatives, or living in motels, the report said.
The number of homeless students in 2013, the latest data available, is 16 students in Greenfield-Central; 13 students in Mt. Vernon; four students in Southern Hancock; and four students in Eastern Hancock.
Statewide, the number of homeless students grew to about 16,200 during the 2013-14 school year, up from about 9,000 during the 2008-09 school year.
Dave Pfaff, principal for Eastern Hancock High School and Middle School, said he’s seen a spike in the number of displaced families in his district since the economic recession began in 2007.
“Many people take for granted that kids are sleeping in a dry, clean, safe place, eating three square meals a day with adults paying attention at home,” he said. “But there are cases when that’s not true.”
That unstable home life can lead to issues at school, he said.
“If those basic human needs aren’t taken care of, there’s no way in the world that kid will be motivated to learn English or math,” he said. “Those basic needs — food and shelter — need to be taken care of first.”
Katie Williams, a social worker at McCordsville Elementary School in Mt. Vernon, said she works with teachers to determine which students could be experiencing instability at home.
But the signs aren’t always obvious, she said.
“Some students externalize it, and you see behavior issues coming through that can signal something’s wrong,” Williams said. “But others internalize things, and you start noticing more absences due to illness, or you may notice them going to the nurse’s office with a stomachache each day.”
Once school officials identify those students, they are placed on free or reduced-price lunch programs, if they’re not already enrolled in them, Williams said.
All local schools also participate in programs with local religious institutions and food banks. The Hancock County Food Pantry, for example, partners with Gleaners Food Bank for the BackSack Program, which provides packaged meals for students to take home with them over the weekend.
Glenn Augustine, interim CEO of Indiana Youth Council, said it’s unclear what specifically could be the cause of the spike, but he speculated the national economic recession in 2008 is likely a factor.
“Many parents lost their jobs during that time and became either unemployed or underemployed,” Augustine said.
It’s difficult to determine if the trend will continue, he said.
Augustine said he encourages concerned residents to offer assistance to their local school districts, either through volunteer hours, donations or mentoring.