Number of homeless children in Wichita schools growing

Ryan Shelton and his son Gavin, 8, get back to their room after taking a walk to the local Quiktrip. Unseasonably warm weather allowed them to get out for a walk. (Jan. 8, 2013)
Ryan Shelton and his son Gavin, 8, get back to their room after taking a walk to the local Quiktrip. Unseasonably warm weather allowed them to get out for a walk. (Jan. 8, 2013) File photo

With four months to go in the school year, educators and staff members have identified 2,182 homeless children in Wichita schools, surpassing the 2,149 they found all of last school year, a district official said.

The only reason the latest number is not a record is that the district is now including preschool children in its annual count of homeless children, said Cynthia Martinez, the homeless children liaison for the Wichita School District. Educators and staff members have identified 177 homeless preschoolers so far this year, she said.

What the latest number means is that the district is well on its way to setting a record for homeless children in its schools, Martinez said. The count starts at the beginning of every school year and continues until school lets out.

School districts are required by federal law to identify and help homeless children, in part because of their needs, in part because of the disruption to their lives caused when their families move from place to place for shelter.

“A lot of the most recent cases we’ve found were of families who got evicted,” Martinez said. “They can’t pay rent, they get kicked out. Or they can’t pay the utilities.

“Or the families they were staying with … after a month or so, they ask them to leave, and they have to go somewhere else.”

As she has said before, most of the families of these children are working families with low-paying jobs.

The school district defines homelessness differently than other agencies. For example, last year’s United Way count of homeless people released on April 12 showed 538 homeless in Wichita. United Way uses federal Housing and Urban Development definitions of homelessness: If you’re on the streets or in a shelter, you are homeless.

But the U.S. Department of Education says anyone “doubling up” – or living with another family – is also homeless. Most of the homeless children in Wichita schools are living doubled up, Martinez said.

Many of these children and their families have great need, Martinez said, for coats, hats, clothes, shoes, shampoo, toiletries, hygiene projects, backpacks, food.

Larry Gunkel runs the Food 4 Kids program at the Kansas Food Bank, which sends backpacks to schools on Fridays with food for children during the . He said last week that the food bank so far this year has identified at least 1,200 kids in Wichita schools in need of food on the weekends.

Many Wichitans have been generous in helping these children, Martinez said. A Northeast High School student, Bradley Castillo, has dedicated his high school project this year to collecting supplies for homeless kids.

His mother, Rebeca Serrano, said her son had collected underwear, socks, cereal and a variety of other items that he planned to give to Martinez this week.

During the holiday season, Martinez said, she received $7,020 from employees at Mel Hambelton Ford. With that donation, she said, she gave winter hats, mittens, gloves and hygiene products to 450 children.

Anyone wanting to help can contact her at or 316-973-4670. She said she is also available to speak to church, community and other groups about the needs.

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