A recent federal government report on homelessness among Nye County School District students reveals the number is at an all-time high.
The federally enacted McKinney-Vento report helps the district identify and provide resources for students and families considered living below the poverty line throughout the nation.
Locally, the total number of students identified as homeless now stands at 348 out of a districtwide 2013-14 student census of 5,214 as of February 2014.
In December, the homeless count stood at 313.
The report broke down the numbers by school and ethnicity.
At present, southern Nye County schools educate the largest number of homeless students, most of whom are at the elementary and middle school level.
Rosemary Clarke Middle School in Pahrump led all other schools in the district with a total of 73 homeless children.
Out of the four K-5 campuses, two local elementary schools, Manse and J.G. Johnson had the second highest number of students at 66 each, while Floyd and Hafen elementary schools tallied their numbers at 29 and 22 students respectively.
Pahrump Valley High School checked in with more than 50 homeless students.
Though the plight of those students is nothing new to the district, in recent years officials have a more accurate method of determining their numbers and identifying them.
That task falls onto the shoulders of NCSD Homeless Student Liaison Linda Fitzgibbons.
Since 2010, Fitzgibbons has seen the ebb and flow of those who are identified as living below the poverty line.
“Every year I always think the number will go down,” Fitzgibbons said. “When I do see a jump in the numbers, I have to look at what is the reason why? Right now there is one of two reasons,” she said.
The liaison noted that prior to the 2009-10 school year, there were no reliable means of getting an accurate count of homeless students.
“At the time the program was in place and it was federally mandated but we did not have an advocate in Nye County. When I came on in the 2009-10 school year, there was actually a body in place to start setting up the program and begin identifying these children. Prior to that, we really had no way to identify these kids unless someone would contact us,” she said.
In the five years the program has been in place, Fitzgibbons said she now has additional help in recognizing students whose families are having significant difficulties in maintaining a suitable residence.
The help came by way of the entire district rank and file, including lunch staff and even bus drivers.
“We also have site liaisons at every single school and we are doing a better job of getting the information out there and identifying the children.” she said.
Additionally, Fitzgibbons said a simple questionnaire is sent to all parents and guardians to help determine what students may be eligible to receive services provided by the district.
The questionnaire allows officials to get an accurate picture of how a student is living and whether the family is undergoing ‘significant economic hardships.’
“We send out a student residency questionnaire that asks the types of questions about living conditions and housing situations. Every single student that comes into the Nye County School District whether they are new or a returning student will get them,” she said.
Though the loss of a job is a major reason why families end up homeless, Fitzgibbons said there are many other contributing factors.
“We also have family issues such as divorce, domestic violence and students that have been kicked out by parents. We have students that for whatever reason, it was safer for them to live on the streets than it was for them to be in their own homes. I’ve had parents drop their kids off at somebody’s house and never return. That has happened a lot,” she said.
The report provided by Fitzgibbons is also broken down by race.
Of the 348 students identified as homeless, 70 percent are Caucasian.
Hispanic and blacks make up 18 percent and 5 percent respectively, while Asians total about 1 percent of the homeless population.
A dividing line between north and south campuses shows southern Nye County schools surpass those in the north in terms of homeless students.
Gabbs School, for example is listed as having one homeless student.
Combined, teachers at Tonopah Elementary, Middle and High School are tasked with educating a total of 10 homeless students.
Beatty and Amargosa schools have a combined total of five homeless students.
The report also broke down the numbers by grade level.
Districtwide, first graders made up the majority with 44 homeless children while high school juniors were listed at 10.
Pre-K and kindergartners in the district total 44 kids combined.
By way of grants, Fitzgibbons said the district is able to provide services for the students who have been identified.
One of those services provides for free and reduced meals for students, which for some, is the only meal they will eat each day.
“Once they hit my list, it automatically goes to our food service department and those kids are taken care of. It’s one of the very first things that happens,” she said.
There is more than one “official” definition of homelessness.
According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), a homeless person is an individual without permanent housing who may live on the streets; stay in a shelter, mission, single room occupancy facilities, abandoned building or vehicle; or in any other unstable or non-permanent situation.
Fitzgibbons says though she is not aware of students living in tents in the desert, many local families fall under the HHS definition.
She also noted that an individual with a child is more likely to secure a temporary place to live than one who is alone.
“If you are a homeless single adult and you ask someone to take you in, they are more likely to believe that you got yourself in that situation and probably won’t take you in. If you are an adult with a kindergartner or a first grader on your hands, they’re more likely to take you in because of the child, not because of you.
“The majority of our families have a roof over their head because of that reason. Ninety-nine percent of our children do have a roof over their heads but it’s not theirs and it’s definitely not permanent,” she said.
One local woman with a small child fits that very description.
On Tuesday mother and child were seated behind a restaurant along Highway 160 with sign in hand.
The message on cardboard she was holding requested any kind of monetary assistance to buy propane for her temporary home.
New to the community, the woman who preferred to remain anonymous explained her situation.
“I am on disability. We were in Las Vegas for almost four years and now I am living with my sister here. We ran out of propane but we get paid on the first. The stove is the only thing that uses propane so now we have to use the microwave to heat our food. I have seven kids. My youngest daughter passed away,” she said.
Fitzgibbons, meanwhile, mentioned additional services that allow students the opportunity to study during summer break.
“Our Summer Slide program provides workbook type materials. If a child is going from third grade to fourth grade, it would be educational materials that promote reading, math, science and things like that during the summer,” she said.
In light of the homeless plight district officials are facing, the liaison did impart a recent success story.
Fitzgibbons spoke about a young woman who is living a much different life at present compared to a few years ago when she was homeless.
Kayla Ball is now employed at the Nye County District Attorney’s Office.
Ball received job training from Nye Communities Coalition’s Youth Werks program with direction from Fitzgibbons.
“When her work experience time was up the DA’s office called her and ended up hiring her and was just promoted to the position of legal secretary. This past weekend I saw her and she told me that she was just approved for a house loan. On Sunday she went out looking for a home. She is very vocal on how this program helped her,” she said.
Ball herself sang the praises of the program while taking a break from her job at the district attorney’s office this week.
“They have many programs that helped me get where I am today and one of them is the McKenny-Vento program. Without that, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t be here right now because that opened up a lot of windows and opportunities for me to be successful. I recently got a promotion. I started as an office assistant and I am now an executive legal secretary now. A few years ago things were really difficult but I can look back now and be thankful for it, surprisingly,” she said.
For additional information on services for students, contact Fitzgibbons at 775-727-1875.