Wichita schools have set a record that no parent or teacher wants to see. As of midday Monday, educators and social workers had identified 2,251 homeless children attending Wichita schools this year.
That’s 518 more than last year – and still counting with two school weeks to go – as the economy continues to drag down families and send them to shelters, motels and the streets.
To counter that dismal number, students at Woodman Elementary School raised their hands Monday and objected to poverty.
Jade Mellecker – an 8-year-old second-grader at the school – had hatched an idea to help. She and fellow students including Elyjah Johnson, Aleia Guthrie and Vivian Schurig formed a “Kindness Club” and sold chewing gum (and the right to chew it in school) at 25 cents apiece in the past few weeks, to help the homeless children they’d read about earlier this year.
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The amount they raised – $121.75 – won’t put a big dent in the need. Many of the 2,200-plus homeless children come in needing everything from food to toothpaste to soap to a place to sleep, school officials said.
But as Vivian Schurig, a 9-year-old fourth-grader, put it on Monday: “We take pride in ourselves, and if something is wrong in our community, it is our job to settle it.”
To Aleia Guthrie, an 11-year-old fifth-grader, the problem is clear-cut, and so is the solution.
“We are helping the homeless because they don’t have stuff like food,” she said. “And shelter. Like we have.”
Second-grader Elyjah Johnson, 8, estimated they sold 545 pieces of gum – along with the “gum licenses” – in the school. Elyjah and the others on Monday handed a check for $212.75 to Cynthia Martinez, the school official in charge of identifying homeless children in the Wichita district.
Martinez by January of this year had identified 1,829 homeless children in Wichita schools, in a count that the district always starts from zero at the beginning of each school year. That number in January was already higher, by 96 schoolchildren, than what she’d found the year before.
There are just under 50,000 students in Wichita schools, district officials say; so the number released on Monday shows that more than 4 percent of the city’s schoolchildren are homeless, according to federal education guidelines.
Most of the children found this year are from working families, not welfare families, Martinez said. They used to have jobs; they used to have homes. Now they’ve lost both, she said.
She and her staff talk to all the families involved. Some are the children of women who endured domestic violence recently and are living in shelters. Many more of the children she recently added to the homeless list are from families that moved recently to Wichita because “they were told that they had a job when they got here, and when they got here, that job didn’t happen,” she said. With no place to go, they go to motels, or double up with friends or family or even strangers.
Jana Epperly, the Woodman principal, said she has encountered similar stories in helping the homeless children she has at Woodman.
Last year, when the United Way of the Great Plains did its annual count of homeless adults and children in Wichita, it found only 555 homeless adults and children. This year that same official count, released on April 12, showed a slight drop – down to 538 homeless in Wichita, said Delane Butler, a spokesman for the United Way of the Plains.
The agencies that help the homeless consider that to be the official number of homeless people for Wichita.
United Way uses federal Housing and Urban Development definitions of homelessness: If you’re on the streets or in shelters, you are homeless.
But the U.S. Department of Education says anyone “doubling up” – or living with another family – is also homeless. More than 1,300 of the children identified as homeless in Wichita schools are living doubled up, Martinez said.
Martinez’s office has collected several thousand dollars from area residents since January, but she said the need is great. “We have nothing for the children starting next school year,” she said.