Homelessness, Poverty Affect Many Students In Springfield, Willard Districts

Mar 28, 2019

A Poster Distributed by the Office of Students in Transition of SPS
Credit Michele Skalicky

Lynn Schirk wants unaccompanied youth and homeless families with school-age kids to know:  There’s help through the school district for things like housing, transportation to school, food and other needs.

Schirk is homeless liaison for Springfield Public Schools.  Her team in the Office of Students in Transition of SPS, which she calls “small but mighty,” consists of herself and two social workers.  There are currently 1300 students enrolled in the district identified as McKinney-Vento eligible. 

The McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act is a federal law designed to eliminate barriers to education for homeless students.

"It's a student that lacks a fixed, regular or adequate nighttime residence," said Schirk.

While that includes those living on the streets or in a vehicle, it also includes those who stay in hotels and motels and with friends or family.

According to Schirk, the number of homeless students in Springfield is consistent with the national average.  She estimates there are many others in the district who just don’t know that help is available or who are afraid to reach out. 

Schirk shows a poster that she said they've put up all over the city in places like schools, libraries, coffee shops, gas stations and laundromats that let people know who is eligible for services from the district through the McKinney-Vento Act and what services are available.  And there are names and contact information for those who can put families in touch with those services.  Schirk hopes the posters will also catch the eye of those who might know someone who needs help completing their education because of their family situation.

Not only are immediate needs met, such as food and hygiene items, but Schirk and the other social workers in her office, provide resources to families.

"So, it's not just about meeting the needs of the students," she said, "it's also about providing stabilizing resources to the family so that increased stability will remove those barriers so that their child can access education."

Her office links caregivers to employment opportunities; emergency shelter; affordable, safe and decent housing; medical care; legal services and more. 

Some schools have clothing banks and food pantries onsite, and there’s a mobile clothing unit through Care to Learn.  The volunteer-run PTA Clothing and Shoe Bank is another resource for families.

She knows there are families who are hesitant to share information about their situation for fear their kids might be taken away or their kids will be moved to a different school.  But Schirk said she doesn’t search for details—she lets them know about support available to them so their kids can access the education they deserve.

"We're not here to judge," she said.  "We're not here to intervene in any kind of negative way.  We're here to support you.  We want you to succeed.  We want you to get to where you need to go and get your family to where you want them to be."

Schirk’s office runs a program called Wednesday Connections at the Dream Center.  It’s a one-stop resource for families to access essential stabilizing resources.  Things families can get help with there include housing assistance, employment services, substance abuse and mental health referrals and more.

Schirk has heard many stories about how families came to be homeless, including natural disaster, loss of employment, catastrophic medical events, addiction and domestic violence.  She said about ninety percent say they would like mental health support. 

"Being McKinney-Vento eligible and living in those types of unstable situations--it's like being retraumatized every day."

Having social workers involved with families "definitely has created more positive outcomes for our families in terms of accessing stability," said Schirk.

A neighboring school district, Willard, encompasses parts of the northwest side of the Springfield, and social workers there said the homelessness problem is more in those urban areas.  Fifty percent of the district’s population is bused in from Springfield.

Chrysta Forrest, the district’s first social worker who started 23 years ago, said the biggest problem they deal with there is poverty, even if families have housing.

"Whether it's out of work, housing seems to be something  that is hard for a lot of our families," she said.  "We do provide a lot of services for a lot of our families and so, we have that onsite because we are a Care to Learn chapter."

Her co-worker, Debbie Burks, said the district offers a lot of services through Care to Learn and through the schools including clothing banks and a food pantry.

"Our goal is to make sure they come to school and they're successful, and we are able to help with any needs related to health, hunger, hygiene, crisis intervention--just make sure they come and they're able to learn," said Burks.

So far this year, they’ve helped a child through Care to Learn 7,869 times.  When they first started keeping track the number was 1,567.

"So, the need is there," said Burks.  "The numbers show the need is there."

Families in the Willard district who need help can call their child’s school and ask for the school social workers. 

Donations of clothing, food and money are always welcome to help schools help families and students in need.  Each Care to Learn chapter must raise its own funds, which stay in that community to help local families.  A big fundraiser for the Willard Care to Learn chapter is Willard Turkey Trot, held each year on Thanksgiving.