Schools Struggle with Rising Tide of Homelessness

By Lawrence Hardy

The district’s mail came back unopened. That was the first sign.

When Karen Kunkel, homeless coordinator for Maryland’s Charles County Public Schools, contacted the family that had lived in a large, suburban home, she heard a story that is becoming increasingly familiar.
“She started to cry,” Kunkel says, recalling that first talk with the children’s mother. “She said, ‘We don’t live there anymore.’ Once that happens, you start to ask pertinent questions in a very gentle way.”

The answers, sadly, were not unique. The family’s dream home—once worth $600,000 in this Washington, D.C., exurb—dropped in value. Their adjustable rate mortgage ballooned. The mother lost her job. Her husband held on to his, but it didn’t bring in enough to cover their debts. The family lost the house. When Kunkel spoke with the mother, they were living on the other side of the county in a friend’s unfinished half-basement, too ashamed to tell anyone of their situation and worried, needlessly, that the children would have to change schools.

As the economy worsens and job losses mount, school officials are seeing more families like this, part of the changing face of homelessness. The “traditional” faces—chronically homeless single adults and families living well below the poverty line—are still there, to be sure, and their numbers are growing. But they are being joined by middle-class families that “never experienced homelessness, never expected to experience homelessness,” says William Cohee, the Maryland Department of Education’s homeless education coordinator.

Charles County is not poor. In fact, Forbes magazine listed it as the 20th richest county in America in 2008. That’s largely thanks to its proximity to the Washington metro area, a region that thrived during the boom years of the 1990s and has been insulated, to some extent, from the subsequent bust because of high levels of federal employment.

But not everyone is insulated. Since 2007, the number of homeless students in Charles County has grown more than 50 percent. “It’s certainly going to go over 400 for the year,” Student Services Director Keith G. Grier said in early April.

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