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Texas school districts struggle to reach, help homeless students during pandemic

Tens of thousand of homeless students across Texas haven't made it to school this year.

FORT WORTH, Texas — Across Texas, tens of thousands of homeless students have disappeared this school year.

Getting homeless families to enroll students is a struggle most of the time, but the COVID-19 pandemic has made the issue worse.

At the Presbyterian Night Shelter in Fort Worth, Sarah Diaz works as a child advocate to provide kids with what they need, including shelter and help for families transitioning to new lives. 

“I’m not sure how much they process or not,” Diaz said. “When I talk to them, they understand that this is temporary.”

In Fort Worth ISD alone, there were more than 2,400 homeless students last school year.

Jo Carter runs the district’s program to help the students who live in a combination of hotels and motels, shelters or temporarily with other family.

“It's a population that is often forgotten except Christmas or Holidays, honestly,” Carter said. “We're seeing more and more families that are struggling because they can't pay rent.”

Maria Mora and her five children first arrived at the Presbyterian Night Shelter in September. 

“The first day when we came, we are not the same person that we are right now,” said Mora. 

“It's tough. Sometimes it is,” Luzero Valles, her oldest and a 10th grader at Eastern Hills High School, said. “I get anxiety about thinking about how much I had before. Now, I don't have... Now, I don't have nothing.” 

At the shelter, Mora’s children are able to learn virtually, but most homeless students attend in person.

This year, districts reported 57,811 homeless students compared to 78,296 last year. In Fort Worth, enrollment fell from around 2,400 to roughly 1,300.

Dallas ISD isn’t seeing the problem to the same degree. Officials said 3,964 homeless students were enrolled in the district last year compared to 3,929 this year.

“We have lost contact with some of our kids,” Carter said. “We know they're out there. We don't know exactly where they are.”

A national survey showed more than 420,000 homeless students haven’t been found this year.

“We have families that walk in the door and they haven’t been to school since last May,” said Diaz.

“The family is so focused on their crisis situation that the kids get lost in that shuffle, and it's not even intentional, but it just happens,” said Carter.

Students who aren't in shelters struggle with access to Wi-Fi and getting devices for school work. The tutors that used to fill the Presbyterian Night Shelter’s Morris Foundation Family Services Center have to distance and can't provide the same help.

“They've lost something. They have,” Carter said. “It's going to affect them for a while. We're going to have to play catch up for the next several years, and that is concerning to me.”

Carter calls hotel managers to try and find children because she believes school provides much more than education. 

“There have been numerous studies that show that education is the way out of poverty,” she said.

“I want them to have a lot of opportunities. The best that I don't have in my life,” Mora said. “I lost my opportunity to stay studying and go to school in college and everything and that affect my life very much.”

“The teachers are supplying a lot of the students that aren’t coming into the shelter with food, with clothes and shoes and socks,” said Diaz.

Another key issue they continue to deal with is transportation. Since homeless families move around often, arranging transportation both inside and across districts becomes difficult.

“It's a huge issue. A lot of times these kids start out in one school, but then the family has to move,” Carter said. “We have kids coming from Lake Worth, Crowley, Arlington, Dallas. Seriously, all over.”

Right now, the shelters and district programs need help. Outside of the pandemic, the Presbyterian Night Shelter is usually in need of tutoring help. Fort Worth ISD has a need for donations to help pay for supplies for students.

“There are only so many resources out there, and that's the most heartbreaking part of my job,” Carter said. “There's a gap here that we can't fill, and it's so needed. And if you could fill that gap, it would really, really help.”

Schools often serve as shelters and sanctuaries where transitions to new lives begin. Right now, both families and the people who serve them need help.

“It’s a building block of starting for everybody,” said Diaz. 

“There are humans that will help you whenever you're really down,” Valles said. “Once we get out of here, we're not going to forget what we've been through. So, sometimes whenever we earn a lot, we're going to give back to the people.”

The Presbyterian Night Shelter has a list of ways for people to help out their efforts. To see how you can help, click here.