At least 9,000 students in Miami-Dade County are homeless or considered "unstably housed" — a number that has increased by 50 percent in two years, according to the school district.
The head of Project UP-START — the division of Miami-Dade County Public Schools that aims to help homeless students and their families find more stable housing situations — said the number could be as high as 14,000 or 15,000.
Some of the jump in numbers came after last year's hurricanes: Harvey, Irma and Maria, said Project UP-START community outreach director Debra Albo-Steiger. Another problem is the region's high cost of living.
At the beginning of every school year, the program sends students home with a questionnaire that asks about their family's living situation. If the student or family fits the "unstably housed" requirement, they can be referred to people with the district or nonprofits who can help arrange transportation or housing.
WLRN Intern Andrew Quintana spoke with Albo-Steiger about how the district tries to help homeless students. She starts here by explaining that she avoids using the word "homeless" when talking to families. Here's an excerpt of their conversation:
ALBO-STEIGER: We can't use that word. The second that you say it to a student or a parent, they are going to walk away from you.
We had a principal a few years ago have a senior in her office. She [the student] had just been recognized for doing a very heroic thing. And the principal was asking about her plans for the following year, because she was graduating. The student described her situation. She never used the word "homeless." She just said her mom had died. She was living with her uncle some days. But he really didn't have room for her, so now she's with her cousin. But it's a trailer, and there's 10 of them, so she can't stay there. The principal said, "Oh, you're homeless, you can get services!" And the girl looked at her, stood up and walked out of the room.
Nobody wants to use that word. It's just, unfortunately, a loaded word. What we're finding — and it's helped with our identification — is that by not using that word, people are more likely to come forward and tell you their stories.
WLRN: Last school year, Project UP-START identified more than 9,000 students in unstable housing. What is the definition of unstable housing?
ALBO-STEIGER: Anyone who lacks a fixed, regular, adequate nighttime residence.
WLRN: What does that entail?
ALBO-STEIGER: So fixed — you're basically looking at somebody who has a residence that they can be at for some period of time.
Regular is that somebody can stay for a very long period of time, but, what often happens, someone will say to them: "You're allowed to be here from 10 o'clock at night to 6 o'clock in the morning. Any other time of the day, you're not allowed to be here."
And adequate is basically what it sounds. We have many people who, you have six, seven people sharing a studio. We've had students sleeping in bathtubs, in closets, on the front porch. None of these things are adequate.
WLRN: The number of students the program identified two years ago was 6,000. That's thousands less than now. What's happening?
Debra: There's several things that are happening. First, last year, because of hurricanes Maria, Harvey and Irma, we saw a large increase of students.
I believe from the bottom of my heart — we do have more students that are out there. We have 14,000 or 15,000, if I had to guess. The state says you have 5 percent of your district's free-and-reduced-lunch population who would fall under the homeless definition. We're not there. We're probably somewhere over 3 percent at this point.
WLRN: Even if you take away the hurricane, the number has been increasing every year. What other factors contribute to this growth?
Debra: I don't think it's a secret to anyone that our rental market is very scary for everybody, and most of our families — I have to say this — they are working individuals. They just can't make ends meet. And it just takes one health crisis, one car accident, a divorce — to set someone spiraling out of control.
WLRN: What is Miami-Dade County Public Schools trying to do to address this?
Debra: We are the Homeless Education Program. So naturally people think we have housing. I don't have keys to apartments, and I don't have shelter beds. What I do have is resources and connections within the community.
So we work with Citrus Health. Citrus Health has what's called a rapid rehousing program, and we are one of the few people that could refer to Citrus, so that people can get help with first month, last month, security deposit. What I do is a lot of advocacy work. I have found it to be incredibly helpful to be able to say to someone: "You're back on your rent. Citrus can help you catch up on your rent so you don't have to move out."