Child Homelessness in the Economic Crisis

Joy Moses interviews Michigan educator Kathy Kropf about the difficulties facing homeless children in the recession.

Kathy Kropf is a Michigan educator who works with homeless students. (CAP)
Kathy Kropf is a Michigan educator who works with homeless students. (CAP)

Listen to the full interview:

I recently spoke with Kathy Kropf, a Michigan educator who runs a support program for homeless students in Macomb County that is funded through the federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act. She explained how the recession and related declines in the auto industry are increasing child homelessness in her Detroit-area school districts. Kropf helps homeless children with education needs, but notes that her students also have problems with other issues such as food and medical care.

It’s important now more than ever that programs like Kathy’s and others assisting homeless children and families receive the support they need from Congress. Nearly 50 percent of surveyed school districts believed that the economic downturn was increasing homelessness in their communities at the end of last year. These upward trends exacerbate disturbing statistics indicating that, even in better times, 1 in 50 children (approximately 1.5 million) typically experience homelessness each year.

The McKinney-Vento Act homeless education program was allotted $70 million in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Michigan garnered $2.4 million, roughly doubling available resources for the year. The ARRA money will soon reach school districts (to be followed by fiscal year 2009 dollars later in the summer). At the time of this interview, Kropf was unsure of future grant amounts for her particular program.

Highlights from our talk follow.

Joy Moses: My name is Joy Moses. I am a Policy Analyst at the Center for American Progress and today I am engaged in a conversation with Kathy Kropf, who is from Macomb Intermediate School District in Michigan. And I am going to let Kathy start the conversation by telling us a little bit about what she does and the purpose of her program.

Kathy Kropf: Ok, thank you, Joy. I am the homeless education liaison. I have a teaching certificate, but for the last 15 years I have worked with the 20 school districts in Macomb County, which is just northeast of Detroit (the metro-Detroit area in Michigan), helping to keep homeless students in school. So, we work with those 20 districts and coordinate things like transportation [and] help with backpacks [and] school supplies. Years ago, we knew they also needed help with food and clothes so we do fundraising and donations so that we can help our students meet their basic needs so they can stay in their home schools and be successful in school while they are temporarily homeless.

Joy Moses: Could you talk a little bit about the impact of homelessness on the children you serve. How does it affect them?

Kathy Kropf: They don’t have clothes, you know, not enough clothes. They don’t have food often. [For] so many of these students, not just homeless students but students in poverty across our country, the main meal they have all day is the free or reduced hot lunch and/or breakfast they have at school . . . People don’t realize how many families with children are going without food on a daily basis.

Another thing [is] medical care, or dental care, or eyeglasses . . . We connect with community resources so we can refer these families for those services—families that don’t have insurance or don’t have Medicaid. Especially now, so many mid-income people don’t qualify for Medicaid but had insurance through their jobs . . . Now [that] they are losing their jobs . . . they have lost their insurance and so they don’t know where they can go to get these kinds of services.

Joy Moses: And have demands for your assistance changed since the beginning of the recession?

Kathy Kropf: Oh yeah. Just to give you an example, we track the number of students we have identified and assisted. Identifying them [is key] because that is one of the hardest thing to do—especially now, because, again, we have families that have never been in this situation before and are embarrassed to ask for help. But we network with schools, and community agencies, and churches, and everyone we can to try to get the word out that this help is available. And for the school year 2006-2007, we assisted 385 students; 2007-2008 that number increased by 33 percent to 514. So far this school year, we have 6 weeks left, and we are already at 582 . . . We have more than surpassed last year’s number so we are seeing a big increase.

Joy Moses: And are they the same types of families that you served before?

Kathy Kropf: No. Thank you for asking that. [We have been] looking at our data differently this year because of the requests from media. . . We saw that for at least 70 percent [post-interview correction: the figure is actually 80 percent] of the referrals this year, they had never been homeless before, at least [not] in our county in the 15 years that we have been tracking it. So it wasn’t the chronic homeless—it was new families that were becoming homeless.

Joy Moses: And, could you describe the resources you have to deal with the increased problem? Were your resources sufficient?

Kathy Kropf: We have been very, very blessed with community support. We have a network of school organizations, church organizations, community organizations (like Kiwanis Clubs, or Rotary Clubs, or Lions Clubs), individual families, and some businesses that will collect, will take up donations. We help families at Christmas time with Christmas gifts, mostly clothes. . . . and food. And then, all through the school year we give each student a new backpack with school supplies, new socks, new winter hats and gloves, new or gently used books, [and] new personal hygiene items. Those [items] are always very expensive. . . We’ve been able with donations to purchase gift cards—$50 to $60 per student per school year, [which is not a lot, but it] helps with clothes or shoes. . . [We also provide] fast food or grocery store gift cards. . .once per school year so we can hook them up with community resources to get food on a more regular basis. And that’s all 100 percent from donations, and the donations 100 percent go to the kids. There’s no cost, no overhead. Anything donated goes 100 percent back to the kids. . .We are having our thank you luncheon next week, and we have more than 100 people coming, and they are probably not even a half of the people that help. So we are very blessed.

Joy Moses: So, as I’m sure you’re aware, the federal government recently passed economic recovery legislation that increased funding for McKinney-Vento, the McKinney-Vento education program, sending more money to programs like yours. Do you anticipate that these new funds will help the children that you serve?

Kathy Kropf: I hope so . . . The grant application is due June 1. We don’t know what the pot of money is for the state of Michigan. We haven’t been told that yet. We don’t know how [our funding] might increase or decrease. We’re hoping that there is more money, but there are also more people that need help than ever before. Last year, the McKinney-Vento grant that we got through the Michigan Department of Ed. was $68,901 and that’s mostly used for my salary and benefits, and that doesn’t even cover that. So we do what we can with the donations. . .

The one big thing that they changed under No Child Left Behind is that the school district is responsible for transportation costs, even when a student lives outside of the district. That has always been unfunded. It is an unfunded mandate, and yet it’s very expensive to the district. And I haven’t heard of any additional funds attached for that.

Joy Moses: So in the event that your funding level increases, and I know it’s difficult to speculate when you don’t know the exact amount, but what kinds of things would you use increased funds for?

Kathy Kropf: . . .We [should] have help on a more regular basis with the transportation assistance, especially for students that are living outside of the district and [are being bussed] across school district and county lines. . . The other things that we are seeing, of course, are more families, students, and their parents in crisis. And if we could have some more money, my wish list would be to have a social worker, at least part time, attached to the program that could work more directly with the families to help . . . with the social and emotional needs of these students and their families.

Joy Moses: That’s great, that’s very helpful. And, so you mentioned the great need for social worker services—obviously that’s important as families are in crisis. Do you think that there are other supports that are needed besides social worker supports and transportation?

Kathy Kropf: As far as school? Are you talking specifically school?

Joy Moses: Sure, yes.

Kathy Kropf: Ok . . . We’re affected greatly by the downturn in the automotive industry in this area—hugely! So the big thing I get parents asking me over and over again is: “If I could just find a job, if I could just find a job.” . . . The kids are seeing this stress . . . So it is not even just a social worker [or] counselor for the students . . . help for the entire family [is needed]. At Christmas time, we had third graders in one of our school districts, in one of our biggest school districts in the county, ask for help for food for their famil[ies] for Christmas or jobs for their parents. We have kindergartners saying they can’t go on their field trips because mom says we don’t have extra money for that anymore. So the students are very aware of what is going on in their family situation. And as the families are losing their house[s] due to foreclosures or evictions, the stress just seems to permeate the whole family. And yet when school districts have to make cuts, one of the first things they seem to cut, at least in our area, are those counselors and social workers—especially at the elementary school level. So, could there be funding through the McKinney-Vento [Act] or something else so that we can help the schools help the families? Does that make sense?

Joy Moses: That does—it makes perfect sense. And that’s one of the things that we are concerned with here, at Center for American Progress, is communicating to legislators . . . things that need to happen for low income families. So I don’t know how comfortable you feel about speaking on that. You already started down that road, but I don’t know if there were other things you would like to say if you were speaking directly to someone who creates federal policy.

Kathy Kropf: Well, the other thing is, again, meeting children’s basic needs, [including] food. Food should not be a luxury—to me that is a necessity. . . [Another issue] is affordable and accessible medical care—and not just medical, but . . . dental and vision. [Teachers may] have a child . . . who has an abscess tooth and nowhere to go to get help because there’s nothing like that available. It just doesn’t make sense to me in our country with the means that we have.

Joy Moses: It doesn’t make sense to me either. We definitely have a lot of work to do.

Kathy Kropf: Yeah . . . People don’t realize the amount of people in need and the things that they are in need of. Like I said, just the most basic needs. You’re not going to be successful in school or work if your basic needs aren’t met. You’re not going to pass the state standardized tests, or the national standardized tests, if you’re hungry or you haven’t slept, or you’re sick.

Joy Moses: And you could be sick because you haven’t had enough food to eat.

Kathy Kropf: You can be sick because of that, and you can be sick because you have the flu or tonsillitis or God knows what . . The school district personnel are telling me more and more [about] kids that are on meds for . . . a medical reason (diabetes or asthma) or . . . emotional reasons. The parents can’t get the meds because they don’t have the insurance or the money. So first the meds get cut, like maybe in half, and then they go without, and then there’s an episode, whether it’s an asthma attack or a seizure from diabetes, or whatever, because they can’t give them the things they know they need.

Joy Moses: This recession is definitely having its impact on low-income families, but we also know that these problems existed beforehand.

Kathy Kropf: Right. And it has just magnified it. It is harder on the low income families, but now we are adding a whole other dimension [with] the middle-income families that were getting by and now are not.

Joy Moses: It’s definitely great that there are people like you that are working to help children and families. I think that we are about ready to close, but I wanted to make sure that you had an opportunity for any last comments that you might want to make.

Kathy Kropf: No, just thank you for, like I said, shining a light on the issue and getting the word out. And I’m glad that you are talking to other people across the country and in different organizations like food pantries. You know, our food pantries have been empty . . . Everybody seems to realize that help is needed at the holidays—Thanksgiving and Christmas. People don’t realize that it is needed all year long, now more than ever.

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Joy Moses

Senior Policy Analyst