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Dorothy Leyba, a homeless liaison at Denver's East High School, leads a support group for students identified as homeless.

Dorothy Leyba, a homeless liaison at Denver’s East High School, leads a support group for students identified as homeless.

Young and homeless: a tough road for a growing number of Colorado students

Kamia Bradley has so much going for her.

The poised 17-year-old will graduate from Denver’s East High School next month and set off on a trip to Ghana with the school’s choir in June. Next fall, she plans to go to college in Denver or Arizona. She started flying lessons last summer and dreams of being a pilot.

Kamia’s accomplishments and aspirations are all the more impressive given that she lives with challenges most of her classmates cannot fathom. She is homeless.

It’s not living-on-the-streets homelessness—the circumstances most people associate with the term. Bradley moved in with her cousin’s family in northeast Denver’s Montbello neighborhood last year after a stint in a motel with her mom. They’d lost their Glendale apartment.

Under federal law, Kamia falls into a category called “doubled up,” meaning she’s temporarily living with friends or relatives because of housing loss or financial hardship. It’s this subset of homeless students that has grown at alarming rates in some districts in recent years, especially Denver, Adams 12, Pueblo 60 and Mesa County 51.

All four districts saw their homeless student numbers increase by more than 30 percent last year, according to district data analyzed by Chalkbeat.

Such spikes are worrisome because homeless students are at high risk of mid-year school switches, chronic absenteeism and other problems that can hurt them academically.

Observers say the disconcerting trend lines in some districts are a sign that affordable housing is a major problem. In gentrifying Denver, more and more families are getting pushed out of the city by rising rents, while Grand Junction and other communities haven’t enjoyed a strong post-recession rebound.

The rising number of homeless students in those communities was spotlighted in the annual KIDS COUNT in Colorado report, released last month by the Colorado Children’s Campaign.

Statewide, the number of homeless students in Colorado rose from about 24,000 in 2013-14 to 24,700 in 2014-15. Balancing out the big increases in some communities were decreases in districts such as Boulder Valley, St. Vrain and Weld 6, where many students rendered homeless by the 2013 floods have found permanent housing.

Nationwide, there were nearly 1.3 million homeless students in 2013-14, a 7 percent increase from the year before. In both years, “doubled up” students made up three-quarters of the tally.

Path to homelessness

Kamia’s path to homelessness touches on territory familiar to anybody who works with such students—a parent’s mental illness, a lost lease and a lots of dead end house-hunting.

With her mother suffering from depression and delusions that she was being poisoned, the teenager spent two months last year trying to find an apartment that would take their Section 8 housing voucher.

Kamia Bradley, a senior at East High School in Denver

Kamia Bradley, a senior at East High School in Denver

“I called so many different places,” she said.

But rents were too expensive or landlords wouldn’t accept the vouchers. So Kamia moved in with her 28-year-old cousin. She leaves the house at 5:40 a.m. for the hour-and-a-half bus ride to school. Her mother ended up in a shelter, sporadically reachable on a prepaid cell phone.

School districts are required to identify and help homeless students under a federal law called the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act. But figuring out who’s homeless can be tricky. Many families don’t know they qualify for help if there’s a roof over their head—even if that roof is temporary and doesn’t belong to them.

“The problem with youth homelessness is it’s usually pretty hidden,” said Cathy Ebel, prevention services coordinator for Mesa County 51.

District employees called homeless liaisons often work doggedly to identify homeless students who are doubled up or living in shelters, hotels, campgrounds or vehicles. Part of the job involves educating school secretaries, registrars and other school staff to recognize and respond accordingly to the signs of homelessness among new students.

Homeless students are entitled to immediate enrollment and free school meals even if they lack the required paperwork. They also have a right to free transportation back to the school they attended when they became homeless. Many districts also help by providing backpacks, school supplies, groceries, clothing and other resources to students and their families.

What’s driving the increases?

Although the poverty rate has decreased statewide, housing struggles are ubiquitous in many communities with rising homeless counts.

“Grand Junction’s economy hasn’t recovered as quickly as other Colorado cities,” said Ebel.

Also, as the only sizable city between Denver and Salt Lake City, Grand Junction tends to attract struggling families because of the many services available, she said.

In Denver, district officials say an influx of new residents, the lack of affordable housing and some families’ loss of Section 8 housing vouchers have contributed to the housing crisis among lower-income families.

Anna Theisen, program manager for the district’s Homeless Education Network, said the district has seen big increases in its doubled-up numbers and the duration of homelessness over the last year.

In Pueblo, many families come in search of cheaper housing and sometimes with the expectation of landing a job in the city’s marijuana industry, said Christy Graham, grant management specialist for District 60.

Another factor contributing to rising homeless student counts is better identification.

Ebel realized a couple years ago that her district’s homeless student count was lower than it should be—only about 390 students. A common rule of thumb, she said, is that the tally should equal about 10 percent of the number of district students who qualify for free school meals. By that measure, the number would have been about 740 in 2013-14.

Ebel subsequently stepped up identification efforts and the numbers jumped to 653 last year—a 68 percent increase. This spring, the district began working with a local shelter to place outreach workers at the district’s four large high schools to better identify and serve homeless teens.

Denver Public Schools has also bulked up staff dedicated to helping homeless students—last fall adding two new homeless liaisons to its staff of six.

One of them is Shant’a Johnson, who is bilingual in Spanish and helps with homeless student services at 46 district schools.

She was on her way to drop off bus passes and gas vouchers at a West Colfax elementary school on a recent afternoon when she spotted a small beat-up RV parked on a side street. There was a heap of scrap metal on top.

It belonged to one of her clients, she said—a grandfather with custody of his two grandchildren, one with special needs. The man, a former homeowner in Denver, had suffered a health crisis after taking on the kids, subsequently losing both his construction job and his house.

“There are some days it’s just like, ‘Wow, it’s so eye-opening,’” Johnson said.

Homeless students here?

Dorothy Leyba, a homeless liaison who works three days a week at East High School, said because of its reputation as a high-achieving and sought-after school many people are shocked to discover East has any homeless students at all. There are 56 out of 2,500 this year.

Homeless families in Denver can stay in this hotel run by the Volunteers of America for up to 12 days.

Homeless families in Denver can stay in this hotel run by the Volunteers of America for up to 12 days.

A half-dozen of them sat around a long wooden conference table at the school during a recent monthly support group meeting Leyba leads. It was fourth period. They munched on Doritos and granola bars as Leyba announced who would receive $5 gift cards for keeping their monthly attendance at 90 percent or better.

One boy had missed two school days in February, but still met the threshold.

“The only reason why is because I lost my bus pass and it was hard,” he explained.

In the next few minutes as Leyba asked what extracurricular activities they wanted to pursue, it was easy to forget the students were anything other than typical teenagers from stable homes.

One boy, who soon rushed off for an ACT practice test, said he wanted to take jujitsu. The boy who’d lost his bus pass asked about taekwondo and a girl across the table said she wanted to find a program that would teach her more about Japanese culture.

Leyba revels in her students’ resilience, but she also knows the daily frustrations they face.

Last fall, for example, Kamia was barred from attending the first day of classes because school officials initially said she needed a parent or caregiver to officially enroll her. Such logistical snafus happen a lot, but even harder is feeling alone in the world.

“When I’m sick I don’t have anyone to take care of me,” she said. “I can’t say my mom has died but that’s how it feels.”