After Harvey, student homelessness surpasses last year

Lisa Cabrera 46, a Project Success liaison, goes through donated items at Victoria East High School. Cabrera oversees assistance to homeless or displaced students through the program.

Victoria school district is experiencing a higher level of homelessness among its students.

The number of homeless students rose to 934 this week.

This surpasses last year's end-of-year total of 809, said Yvonne Rossman-Ramos, VISD's homeless and foster care liaison.

Of course, these are only the homeless students known to school officials.

The district has a homeless support program called Kidz Connection, which helps students in transitional living situations successfully complete their education.

Rossman-Ramos said that in her seven years at the Connection Center, she has never seen so many students identified as homeless at this point in the school year.

A few years ago, the district reached 1,200 by the end of the year, but VISD usually documents between 800 and 900 homeless students.

Rossman-Ramos said her team is seeing a greater need for basics, such as clothing and food, at each campus.

But they are also witnessing just how Hurricane Harvey has pushed local families even further into poverty.

The organization said families are reaching out because they need beds and housing.

"We're seeing families tripled-up, and that's something we'd never seen before," Rossman-Ramos said.

School district spokeswoman Shawna Currie said 95 students affected by Harvey have withdrawn from the district; some came to the district temporarily from coastal districts, while others were students before the storm who have since left town.

"There are still quite a bit of families that are living in hotels, and some are still living in gutted homes," said Lisa Cabrera, a student liaison at Victoria East High School.

She and her co-workers are hearing from families given five days notice to move out of their apartments because of hurricane damage.

"We have a lot of families who have never been in these situations," she said.

The staff at Kidz Connection helps students with food, clothing and academic support and can direct families toward other local resources.

But there's not much mentors can do to help families find affordable housing after Harvey.

"That is the most helpless feeling," Cabrera said. "They have nowhere else to go."

Last year, the program helped 21 homeless seniors graduate, a feat she says wasn't easy.

The mentors at both of the district's high schools try to work through any barriers so students can succeed and walk the stage.

From her small office at Victoria East High School, Cabrera tries to do what she can to help students living in difficult situations.

Neatly packed away in storage containers are boxes of macaroni and packs of ramen. She has a supply of spiral notebooks and binders.

She also keeps a stock of diapers, tampons and one of the biggest needs - new underwear.

But right next to her desk is a small container with Pop-Tarts and breakfast bars.

Her students can grab one when they've missed breakfast.

She's noticed her students' grades have dipped.

"I'm thinking it's because their minds are elsewhere," she said.

It's not uncommon for high school students to work to support family, including younger siblings.

The program offers small incentives, such as a $10 gift card, to encourage the students to focus on their studies.

Students who come from inconsistent living situations are not often able to focus on academics.

Brownson Home Administrator Rise Konarik said she sees that pattern firsthand at the children's home.

Before these children moved in, academics took a back seat to survival with much of their day spent looking for food and transportation. This often led to poor attendance and behavior problems, she said.

Konarik said they remind the children not to worry about all the grown-up stuff.

"A lot of it, I think, is teaching them to care about it themselves so they can see the value of education," she said.

Still, those habits are hard to break, and the support from Kidz Connection is invaluable.

"It takes a village to raise a kid," Konarik said. "They are like the mayor of our village."

Victoria school district has an enrollment of 14,256. A private school, such as St. Joseph High School, for example, has less ground to cover with about 300 students.

Guidance Counselor Ann Brogger said they are able to handle each case individually.

In the past, the school faculty has anonymously deposited funds into a student's lunch account or helped pay tuition. St. Joseph also set up a car pool for students from Port Lavaca to make it easier on the families.

The VISD program relies on employees like Berenda Donald, a receptionist at Victoria East, and teachers to let the campus liaison know a student may be struggling.

"A lot of times, they'll volunteer information, and you can tell there's a need," she said.

Recently, Donald learned about a student living inside a camper with siblings while the father was working roofing jobs in the area.

Donald said she listens when a student says they are staying with friends and going from house to house.

She also likened the East campus to a village and informs Cabrera about students who could benefit from the program.

Rossman-Ramos said funding for Kidz Connection comes from all over.

Recently, an 8-year-old in Georgia asked guests at his birthday party to donate to Kidz Connection.

He sent 25 Walmart gift cards each loaded with $20. She's not sure how he heard about the program, but she assumes it was through the news.

She focuses on obtaining the resources, which includes grantwriting and working with local churches and organizations such as RHM Jeans for Teens.

This allows her team of Project Success mentors and liaisons to work at the campuses one-on-one with students and parents.

Most of the students don't know they are documented as homeless; they just know they have a mentor.

The definition of homeless is based on the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, which states an individual is homeless if they lack a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence.

This includes those living in motels, cars, a shelter or substandard housing.

According to the National Center for Homeless Education, liaisons never label a student as homeless on forms or conversations with the family or child.

These families may not consider themselves homeless even though their living arrangement meets the definition.

"I was one of these kids. I didn't have a normal life," Cabrera said.

She lost her father at a young age, and before that, she said, he was always in the paper for being in trouble.

Still, she found a way to overcome adversity and sometimes tells parts of her own story to relate to the teens she mentors.

"I tell them I love them like my own kids," she said. "I want them to go further than I did."

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Features Editor

Laura has covered health and nonprofits in the Crossroads since 2014. She's also mom to a toddler, loves journalism conferences and is a big fan of sci-fi and crime TV.

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