As Ashley Warren stood shivering outside the Fannie C. Harris Youth Center Tuesday as dignitaries and partners cut the ribbon on the first phase of the drop-in center for Dallas ISD’s homeless youth, she realized something — her office was about to get even busier than usual.
Marshall is the manager of the district’s homeless education program, and when the mercury drops, she begins to worry about the thousands of students who lack shelter.
“I went to ribbon cutting for our new drop-in center today, and it was so cold,” she told me last night. “I realized that we are in for a bad winter and our phone is going to start to ring off the hook for various items.”
The district has about 4,000 students each year that are considered homeless — but most experts feel that number is likely much higher, since some won’t admit they’re homeless.
“It’s around 4,000 each year, but I would say that is a conservative estimate,” Marshall agrees. “A lot of people won’t self-identify because they are afraid we are going to call the police, or CPS, or even ICE.”
And even more students and families may not feel they are homeless if they have relatives to live with, or can afford even the sparsest of hotel rooms.
“But by the definition set out in the McKinney-Vento law, those folks are homeless,” Marshall said. “And if you went to some of the motels these folks live at, it is pretty grim.”
The McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act is a federal law that provides money for homeless assistance programs. Originally the McKinney Act, the McKinney-Vento Act also defines homeless children as “individuals who lack a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence.” Children living in motels, campgrounds, or sharing housing because of economic hardship or eviction are among those covered by the act.
“We have so many homeless kids in our city — folks tend to be amazed by the numbers, but when you think about all the low-income apartments coming down and $400,000 condos going up, it makes perfect sense,” Marshall said.
To make it a little more challenging, the homeless education services department is also dealing with a temporary logistical issue with the assistance they used to get from the North Texas Food Bank.
“They moved to Plano this year to a brand new facility — which is great, but it has held up our deliveries as we try to work through logistics,” she explained.
Marshall has been replenishing stores of shelf-stable snacks and meals through an Amazon Wish List, and is hopeful the community can step in and help fill the department’s larder in the interim.
But students could also use socks, underwear, and new toiletries and hygiene items, as well as new warm coats and uniforms.
“We have lots of well-meaning people call us to donate ‘gently-used’ clothing, but my gently used is not someone else’s gently used, so we now ask for new — our homeless kids deserve a new uniform or coat, they are in such dire circumstances a new coat would mean so much to them,” Marshall explained, adding that the need is most great for older students.
“We need bigger sizes. It is easy for us to get little kid sizes — people are happy to buy cute little coats and toys for little kids, but we tend to forget our high schoolers,” she said. “And sometimes they are the ones that are in the most need — they tend to be the kids whose parents have told them to leave for whatever reason, and they are just trying to survive couch to couch.”
So now Marshall is putting out a plea for coats and a fill up for the pantry, and said that even the smallest donation is appreciated.
“Even one or two extra coats will be more than we have today, so we are grateful for anything that comes our way,” she said.
Bethany Erickson is the education and public policy writer for CandysDirt.com. She is also the Director of Audience Engagement for Candy’s Media. She is a member of the Online News Association, the Education Writers Association, the International Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences, the National Association of Real Estate Editors, and the Society of Professional Journalists, and is the 2018 NAREE Gold winner for best series. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.