The numbers are striking: more than 500 children on Newark’s student rolls — enough to fill a good-sized school building — were listed as homeless last year. Another 300 each were listed in Camden and Vineland.
It’s not just cities. As the Great Recession has lingered, an increasing numbers of suburban families have moved in with friends and relatives.
Statewide, the number of students listed as homeless rose close to 30 percent from the year before, to more than 6,500 overall. State officials expect that figure to continue to climb this year.
“Coupled with budget cuts, it’s only added to the challenges that schools are facing,” said Danielle Anderson Thomas, coordinator for homeless education for the state Department of Education.
In response, the state this week put out new guidelines telling school districts how to deal with homeless students. Specifically, they are advised to enroll students first and deal with residency requirements later.
“Enroll first and ask questions later, it’s what I tell people over and over,” Thomas said.
The issue has proven increasingly tricky for school districts. The state’s fifth-largest district, Edison has he highest number of homeless students in New Jersey — 527 in 2009.
The district’s business administrator, Daniel Michaud, isn’t entirely surprised, given the continued influx of immigrants.
“We’re a very diverse population with a large Asian population especially, and a lot of families have come here directly from Asia and moved in with friends and relatives,” said Michaud.
Does that make them homeless? “Certainly many of them qualify for free or reduced lunch,” he said, referring to the typical measure of poverty in schools.
“They may not be coming out of foreclosures, but with the economy the way it is and there being so few jobs,” Michaud said.
The law defines students as homeless if their families are “sharing the housing of other persons due to loss of housing, economic hardship, or a similar reason.”
“They say it’s on a temporary basis, although the law doesn’t define what temporary is,” Michaud said.
There is some state and federal financial help available to districts with homeless students, but it isn’t a lot. Aid, which is allotted by formula, works out to a total of roughly $1,000 per child. The money is meant for additional transportation, after-school programs and other services, state officials said.
The guidance issued by the state this week speaks specifically to districts’ requirement to waive proof of residency, such a landlord affidavits, in the case of homeless students.
“Though proof of residency affidavits may be intended to ensure that only eligible students are able to enroll in a district school, the use of such forms as a requirement for enrollment, or continued enrollment, constitute an educational barrier for students who are homeless,” read the memo from assistant education commissioner Barbara Gantwerk.
Thomas said her office has seen increasing complaints that schools are enforcing those requirements, although she could not put a number on the incidents. She said complaints are largely handled on a case-by-case basis by the state’s county offices.
Still, she said, the state wanted to be proactive in reminding districts, as they did similarly after the Haiti earthquake and the Hurricane Katrinia, both of which displaced large numbers of students.
“We just want to make sure there is that continuity for these children that is so important to school success,” she said.