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Lack of sleep, anxiety, depression and acting out are all heightened mental health challenges faced by the 500 unaccompanied youths and the approximately 3,000 students experiencing homelessness in Jefferson County Public Schools.
“Homelessness is not someone standing off I-70 and Sheridan,” said Oscar Fonseca, community family connection liaison for Jeffco schools who works with unaccompanied youths and families experiencing homelessness. “It comes in many different ways within the schools. Our kids don’t always show it. They see a lot of things when they have to stay in a parking lot or shelter, and it’s our job to help, make sure they have somewhere stable during the day, and can break that cycle through education.”
According to Rebecca Dunn, community and family connections coordinator for Jeffco schools, the majority of those students are in “doubled-up” situations living with other families.
“But we’re seeing it’s really triples or quadruples,” Dunn said, adding that it’s scary for families living in those situations when the landlord doesn’t know, because everyone in the home could potentially become homeless.
“Something I don’t think can be communicated enough is when we vote down pro-growth legislation, what you’re doing is stopping affordable housing,” Dunn said. “So families that have always been self-sufficient paying $1,500 rent, that’s taken away and now their rent is $2,200 and there’s not enough safety net programs. Now they get evicted and this whole cycle starts. It’s a really slippery slope when you don’t have enough affordable housing for your community. It opens kids to trauma, which starts that hard-to-break cycle of poverty.”
Fonseca says he sees this pattern daily when working with families experiencing homelessness, many of whom are being priced out of the county.
“Many families are living in a tight situation — sharing homes with people — but they are working and just cannot get out of that rut,” Fonseca said. “Some are paying $500 a week for hotels on Colfax, and when you’re making $10 an hour, that’s everything.”
Fonseca is one of five family connection liaisons who serve the 157 schools in the district. Their job is to help break down the barriers of accessing education.
One main focus — beyond getting parents singed up for benefits and providing needed hygiene items, clothing and school supplies — is to give students a sense of place at their home school.
“Study after study is looking at the effects of high mobility on students,” Dunn said. “What they’ve found is students experiencing homelessness, as the parents move, the student moves and you lose attachments of people who know your name, the layout of the building … all the things that make us feel comfortable. Each time a student moves, it came with a four-to-six-month regression.”
Because of this, Dunn said the district works to keep students at their school by providing transportation if necessary.
But the barriers are as different as the students, each with a unique challenge.
Last year, one student experiencing homelessness made her school’s cheerleading team, but couldn’t afford the $1,200 cost associated with it. The liaisons reached out to donors, and through them and the student’s own fundraising, she was able to join the team.
“It bums me out that if there are not resources, you don’t have the same opportunities,” Dunn said.
Similarly, the Arvada Elks are partnering with Arvada High School to help cover graduation costs for about 20 graduating seniors experiencing homelessness.
In spite of everything, Dunn said she is continually surprised with the students’ spirit and determination.
“It always stuns me the effort they put forth,” she said. “Some have tremendous barriers and they have overcome them.”
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