COLLEGE PARK – Danny Lamont Jones seems like an average high schooler. He goes to class, and comes home and writes music when he can’t focus on his homework.
But for much of his high school career Jones, 18, wasn’t living like an average student. He attended four different high schools as he moved in and out of homes and shelters in Baltimore city. When he turned 12, he said, he moved into a shelter in for homeless teenagers.
“I had to make my own way from there,” said Jones, who now lives with his uncle.
Jones is one of thousands of students in Maryland who have experienced homelessness. The number of K-12 students identifying as homeless in U.S. public schools hit a record high 1.2 million during the 2011-2012 school year, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
In Maryland, 1.7 percent of students enrolled in all Maryland public schools — 14,691 — had no permanent place to call home during the 2011-2012 school year, the latest year for which data was available from the Maryland State Department of Education.
These totals do not include minors who are not enrolled in school and students who do not openly identify as homeless, like Miguel, who attends Heritage High School in Baltimore city.
Miguel, 15, hangs out with friends or plays football or basketball after school. After that, he makes his way home to Sarah’s Hope Mount Street, a 24-hour emergency shelter for women and children in Baltimore, where he lives with his mother, Felicia, 43, and three younger sisters.
“I wouldn’t want [my friends] to know,” Miguel said. “People would treat me differently and I don’t want that to happen.”
Capital News Service agreed to Miguel’s and Felicia’s request to not print their last names.
The Maryland State Department of Education data shows that the percentage of homeless students enrolled in Maryland public schools has increased by 0.17 percentage points since the 2009-2010 school year.
The recession helped drive the increase, with foreclosures and unemployment hitting poor and middle class families hard, according to homeless population experts. A report by the National Center on Family Homelessness found that the recession left one in 45 children homeless.
“If you do the math since the recession, you see a huge increase,” said Carmela DeCandia, director of the National Center on Family Homelessness, on the homeless student population. “There’s no doubt that the recession and economic impact has increased the numbers, but it’s in a larger context that family homelessness has been steadily on the rise since 1980s.”
Working a low-wage job in Maryland can bring families and individuals closer to the edge of homelessness because of a lack of affordable housing, according to Monisha Cherayil, staff attorney at the Public Justice Center, a nonprofit legal services organization.
In Maryland, minimum-wage earners need to work 135 hours per week, 52 weeks per year, in order to afford market rent of $1,273, according to a study by the National Low Income Housing Coalition. If working 40 hours a week, 52 weeks a year, the hourly wage a household must earn is $24.47.
“We have a lot of clients that get evicted because someone loses a job,” Cherayil said. “It’s a major cause of homelessness and causes a lot of consequences for youth.”
Miguel and his family were evicted from their home last year and have been staying at the shelter ever since.
Despite the lack of privacy that comes with living in a shelter – his family shares a room with four other families – Miguel said he fares well in his new community.
“It’s a lot of grown ups, but I get along with all of them,” he said. “They treat me really good, they’re like family to me.”
Although students often face challenges in a shelter environment, Miguel said he has no problems doing his homework.
But Jones said his grade point average suffered because of his constant relocating.
“School wasn’t a priority,” he said. “My living situation was.”
But Jones’ attitude about school ultimately changed.
“I soon came to realize that all I got is school,” he said. “I didn’t have a place to live, I couldn’t control my family, the only thing I could control was school.”
Homeless students have a hard time focusing in class if they haven’t had a good night of sleep or a nutritious meal, said Lynne Weise, pupil personnel and homeless liaison at Anne Arundel County Public Schools.
And many students have trouble keeping up with classroom content because of absences, said
Denise Ross, supervisor of the Homeless Education Program of Prince George’s County.
Jones said he got into a lot of fights at schools and experienced “a lot of stress.”
“I felt like people had a certain type of attitude at me and saw me as less fortunate,” said Jones, who said he has been open about his homelessness at school. “I felt like people were laughing at me because of my homelessness.”
The increase in the homeless student population does not necessarily mean that more students and families are sliding into homelessness, said Angie McAllister, associate vice president of special initiatives at United Way of Central Maryland, a human service organization that serves the central counties of Maryland.
School systems are doing a better job identifying homeless students, she said.
Identifying homeless students is a “huge” issue, said Barbara Duffield, policy director of the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth, who said it is necessary to train employees — everyone from bus drivers to cafeteria workers — to identify students in need.
“These are largely invisible families so we really have to be looking for them,” she said. “Schools can be the safest, most stable place for these kids.”
Homeless student liaisons in Maryland have been working to identify and enroll students in public schools. McKinney-Vento, the federal homeless education assistance act, provides public school enrollment, transportation services, school meals, school supplies, uniforms, before and after school programs and tutorial support.
Weise said Anne Arundel County schools are providing these services to a growing number of homeless students, focusing on immediate enrollment and school stability.
“I would say we’re knocking [enrollment] out of the ballpark,” she said. “Now it’s just a matter of making sure kids stay in school and have high achievement levels”
Both Weise and Ross said they were working closely with school staff to help them better understand the level of stress that comes hand in and hand with homelessness.
“Their entire lives have been disrupted,” said Weise. “They don’t know if they have a quiet place to do their homework.”
Miguel hasn’t had a problem with keeping up with his school work at Sarah’s Hope Mount Street. He said he hopes to become a civil engineer one day.
“I like to build things,” he said. “Or if I could pursue a sport it would be basketball.”
And Miguel and his mother, Felicia, who just recently found employment, are hopeful that the shelter will only be a temporary home.
“Where we see us going is another place to stay that’s permanent and stable,” Felicia said. “As far as Miguel is concerned, I just want to push him to do more and pursue his dreams without all the stress that comes with being in homeless shelter.”
Although Jones has been living in a stable home with his uncle for a year, he said he still has to find ways to cope with his years living in shelters. He said he no longer resorts to violence. Instead, he makes music.
“I like to write,” he said. “Writing and making music was an escape route and still is.”