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Number of homeless children in Nye School District on the rise

Life has changed drastically for Larry Draper and his family for the last six months after he became homeless.

The turbulent situation severely affected his three grandchildren as Draper and his wife kept bouncing around Pahrump Valley in search of steady housing amid scorching summer temperatures.

Draper’s situation is not unique to Nye County. According to the most recent data provided by the Nye County School District, the number of homeless students in its schools has been climbing steadily for the past 8 years.

The data shows a sharp increase from 27 homeless students in 2007-2008 school year to 362 in November 2015. The largest number of homeless students in the district, 36, was registered among kindergarteners. Draper’s grandson, 6-year-old Jesse Fritts is one them.

The Nye County School District tackles the issue of homelessness among its students through the McKinney-Vento Act’s Education for Homeless Children and Youth program. The program operates on a national level and strives to address the problems that homeless children and youth face in enrolling, attending and succeeding in school.

The program defines homeless children and youth as individuals who lack a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence. The definition also includes children and youth who are sharing the housing of other people due to loss of housing, economic hardship and are living in motels, hotels, trailer parks or camping grounds due to the lack of alternative accommodations or awaiting foster care placement.

Linda Fitzgibbons, pre-kindergarten program homeless liaison for the Nye County School District, attributed the growth of homelessness in the district to a combination of reasons. While the economy is a factor, she said the district employees have been doing a more thorough job at identifying students who lack stable housing.

“The number one reason is not being able to afford housing. That’s really what the biggest reason is,” she said.

According to the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth, homeless children and youth represent 2.3 percent of all school-age students and 30 percent of all school-age students living in extreme poverty. These children and youth face basic educational challenges, such as lacking supplies and a reasonable environment in which to do homework.

To identify homeless students, the Nye County School District uses a Student Residency Questionnaire, a form that officials send out at the beginning of every school year to all students.

“Because they were homeless last year, doesn’t necessarily mean that they are homeless this year. That’s why we re-identify (them) every single school year,” Fitzgibbons said.

Despite the efforts, the issue of homelessness presents a challenge to keeping students enrolled in school, Fitzgibbons said.

“We have a higher absentee rate with our homeless children than we do with our regular kids because there’s other things that are more important at that point in time in their life. Some of them are just barely surviving,” she said.

For the year of 2014-2015, Nye County School District had an attendance rate of 93.8 percent among 5,352 students, according to the Nevada Department of Education. The data however doesn’t single out students in the McKinney-Vento program.

Fitzgibbons said to qualify as homeless, a student must meet a number of criteria that are outlined by the program.

“Just because you are living with your grandparents doesn’t automatically make you homeless. It depends upon the circumstances,” she said.

Program’s funding isn’t enough

Nye County School District doesn’t provide accommodations for homeless students but it strives to ensure that those who end up without housing remain enrolled in school.

Under the McKinney-Vento Act’s Education for Homeless Children and Youth Program, State Educational Agencies (SEAs) such as Nye County School District must ensure that each homeless child and youth has equal access to the free public education, including a public preschool education, as other children and youth.

When Draper first became homeless, Nye County School District arranged a pickup for Jesse right out by the desert spot where they were staying and sent a bus out there, an endeavor that was paid for by the McKinney-Vento program.

Additionally, the district also acts as a liaison between homeless families and local organizations that provide the much-needed help.

Draper and his wife, who are legal guardians for Jesse and two other grandchildren, received an outpouring of donations in the form of food, clothing and household items from local entities.

“Overwhelming,” Draper said about donations recently, holding back tears. Now their trailer has a TV, children’s toys and other household items that are crammed into a tight space.

Fitzgibbons, who works on a part-time basis for the McKinney-Vento program, said it received $62,000 in funding for the 2015-2016 school year. The money will go toward identification of the homeless, providing them with activities and scholarships.

But the district often has to stretch the program dollars, as the funding doesn’t cover all McKinney-Vento children’s needs.

For items that are not covered by the grant, such as clothing, school supplies and toiletries, the district does additional fundraising for the Nye County School District Homeless Activity Fund.

“What we did is we put together the Nye County School District Homeless Activity Fund and we do fundraising through that fund. So we do have an additional fund that we use that people will donate to all the time,” Fitzgibbons said.

Recently, she has been more optimistic after President Obama signed into law the Every Student Success Act (ESSA) that aims to improve the education of more than 1.3 million children and youth facing homelessness.

The new law increases dedicated funding for school district efforts to educate homeless children by over 20 percent and increases flexibility to use additional federal funding streams to help homeless children and youth.

“It’s not very much money when you look at $60,000 what it goes to pay for. It doesn’t even pay for half of the salary for one person,” Fitzgibbons said.

“We are luckier than most homeless people”

Draper, his wife Cathy David, and their three grandchildren stayed in the middle of the desert for three months before they were allowed to stay in a fenced off spot next to a storage unit. But Draper said he is better off than dozens of other homeless people whose trailers can be seen from his windows far in the desert.

“Like I said, I think we luckier than most homeless people,” Draper said.

It all started after one of their grandchildren’s social security checks went away and they couldn’t pay rent on the house. Bills mounted and Draper and his family had to leave their place, scrambling to find an affordable housing.

Eventually, the manager of the storage unit tucked between several businesses off Highway 160 allowed them to stay on the property for free in exchange for Draper’s keeping an eye on the storage and picking up trash around its perimeter.

“A snowball effect has been just hitting us all year since July. When that check dropped, everything has just been downhill financially for us,” he said.

While Draper and David are both retired and live solely off their social security checks, their daughter is mentally disabled and can’t take care of the children.

The small trailer parked next to Draper’s truck gets congested with five people in it. Two of the grandchildren have to sleep on the floor in makeshifts beds as the space is limited.

“Normally, there’s five of us in this trailer. It’s crowded,” Draper said.

The situation has been especially tough on Jesse, a 6-year-old with a shy smile and love for the camera. Jesse’s deaf and doesn’t speak. For the past three years he has been attending sign language classes. The Nye County School District also provides an interpreter who accompanies Jesse in school.

While getting Jesse to doctors’ appointments locally is still doable for Draper, driving to Las Vegas became more financially burdensome after they lost housing.

“It’s been hard,” Draper said about getting Jesse to appointments in Las Vegas.

Draper and David said they do their best to provide for their grandkids but can only do so much with limited finances.

“We have always been able to take care of everything. Kind of depressing when things go bad,” Draper said.

For right now, Draper and David said the place works out for them. “We are hoping that once we can get our bills paid off, we can find an apartment or something we can afford,” Draper said.

A few days before Christmas, Draper and his wife were still waiting for the social security check to come in. Draper said he couldn’t afford to put up a Christmas tree and buy presents for his grandchildren.

“This is the first year since the kids were born I haven’t been able to get them something for Christmas. Feels pretty bad. Just kind of depressing, but you keep going every day,” he said.

Contact reporter Daria Sokolova at dsokolova@pvtimes.com. On Twitter: @dariasokolova77

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