‘Schools are survival’: U.S. coronavirus closures put homeless students at risk

By Carey L. Biron

WASHINGTON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – For U.S. student Samantha Kinney, high school is about more than education: It has also given her a support network, a sense of accomplishment — and, at times, even access to daily necessities like food and hygiene products.

Kinney, 18, has dealt with homelessness and housing instability for years, including a time when she lived out of a car with her parents and dropped out of school altogether.

She currently lives with relatives in Kansas City, Missouri – having not seen her parents in a few years – and has restarted school, where she has found a surprisingly nurturing community.

“There were even times when families would ‘adopt’ me for Christmas, when they would buy me gifts before break,” Kinney told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone.

Now, the coronavirus pandemic has thrown that support system into flux.

Like most schools across the country, Kinney’s school is closed, probably through the end of the school year in June, leaving students in unstable housing situations without the everyday help they rely on, warn homelessness groups.

For many students, those closures have removed a key source of stability, safety, access to food and other resources, as well as the opportunity to gain the skills or a job that could secure their future.

“Schools are survival for children experiencing homelessness,” said Barbara Duffield, executive director of SchoolHouse Connection, a nonprofit that works on the issue nationally.

“Now that schools aren’t there, and the organizations that schools referred (homeless students) to are closing down or short-staffed, a lot of the most vulnerable populations are more likely to fall through the cracks,” she said.

Kinney is one of at least 1.5 million homeless public school students across the country, according to federal statistics released in January for the 2017-2018 school year, the latest available.

That figure is a record high, according to SchoolHouse Connection, up 11% in just a year, and includes a doubling of the number of students in “unsheltered” situations, such as living in cars or on the street.

Those who work with homeless students worry that the pandemic will have an outsized impact on many of them, now and into the future.

More than 90% of schools in the United States have been affected by closures to some degree due to the pandemic, according to trade publication Education Week.

So far, Kinney said she is coping with the changes. She has a computer and stable internet connection at her relatives’ house, and has stayed on top of her studies.

Still, the high school senior said she feels the disruption even more starkly than her peers, including the possible cancellation of landmark events such as prom and a formal graduation.

“I really wanted the satisfaction of being able to walk across that stage and being handed my diploma,” she said.

SOURCE OF STABILITY

Schools have long played a critical, but poorly recognized, role in helping homeless students in the United States, said social workers and activists.

As well as providing homeless students with an education, many public schools “offer other basic supports, including showers, laundry, and even clothing,” said Matt Smith of Washington state’s Homeless Student Stability Program.

But Dana Bailey, chief operating officer at nonprofit Homeless Youth Connection in Avondale, Arizona, said that homeless youths are more likely to drop out of school – and that the coronavirus outbreak has “turned our organization upside-down”.

In Arizona, schools started closing on March 16 for what was going to be two weeks, but has been extended to the rest of the school year.

During the first few weeks of the closure, Bailey and her colleagues focused on the immediate needs of the nearly 290 students they work with.

For students who usually get food through schools, the group dropped off groceries or gift cards that can be used for food and other supplies.

Then, as the schools prepared to start remote learning, Homeless Youth Connection began trying to source essentials like computers and internet hotspots for students who didn’t have them.

“Our students come into our program with no stability,” said Kayla McCullough, a program manager at the non-profit.

“They don’t have what we think of as a home, housing is temporary, food is unreliable and family members are overburdened by trauma caused by homelessness.”

Students who face problems at home are often safer at school, McCullough said.

“If there’s any danger at home, they get to escape that by going to school … It’s a light at the end of the tunnel for many,” she said.

Some community advocates say the public fear surrounding the pandemic is exacerbating homelessness issues, sometimes resulting in people being kicked out of their living situation.

“We’re starting to hear from (homeless) parents that there’s fear on the part of their hosts, (who are) saying, ‘You’ve been here for six months, and I’m too scared to have you’,” said Debra Albo-Steiger, a director at the Project UP-START homeless programme in Miami’s public school system.

DORMS SHUTTERED

School closures don’t affect only younger students: As colleges and universities across the country have shut classrooms and dorms, many have been confronted with students who have nowhere else to go.

Nearly half of college students are housing insecure, and 16% are homeless, according to Marissa Meyers, a researcher with the Hope Center for College, Community and Justice at Temple University in Philadelphia.

Amid the pandemic, “colleges and universities don’t know what to do — they’re paralyzed,” she said, with most seeing major holes opening in their budgets.

Colleges and universities are projecting a $23 billion decline in revenue next school year due to the coronavirus-related drop in enrolment, according to the American Council on Education industry group.

The federal government recently allotted $14 billion to struggling colleges and universities, half of which must be used to help students pay for things like food, housing, school materials and health care.

Some schools have found a way to keep some of their dorms open for students, at least temporarily.

Middle Tennessee State University spokesman Jimmy Hart said the school has made exceptions for those who can’t go anywhere else, including international students and those without reliable internet connections at home.

Berea College in Kentucky, which caters solely to low-income students, is also maintaining housing for about 150 students who could not vacate, according to president Lyle Roelofs.

“No student who had no home to go to or another viable option was asked to leave campus,” he said in emailed comments.

Yet Roelofs expressed concern about the longer-term effects of coronavirus-related closures, particularly for poor students.

“My larger fear is that … the extra curveballs they are facing as a result of the pandemic may seriously degrade their already discouraging prospects,” he said

That’s a sentiment expressed by many, at all levels of schooling.

“We know (the pandemic) isn’t just affecting health, but also our economy,” said Dana Bailey of Homeless Youth Connection.

Ahead of the next school year, she said, “we’re already anticipating a greater number of students needing our services”.

(Reporting by Carey L. Biron, Editing by Jumana Farouky and Zoe Tabary. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

Unaffordable rental housing may be ‘new normal’ in the United States

By Carey L. Biron

WASHINGTON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – A growing number of Americans cannot afford to pay their rent as rental property prices hit a record high, researchers said on Friday, amid an outcry over rising evictions and homelessness.

The number of U.S. households living in rentals also surged to 43.7 million in 2018 – up 21% from 2004 – a study by Harvard University found, as a growing share of older, larger families can no longer afford to buy their own homes.

“This is like nothing that we’ve seen,” said Whitney Airgood-Obrycki, the study’s lead author, pointing to the rising number of households who are cost-burdened – or spend more than 30% of their income on housing.

Some 21 million U.S. renters are cost-burdened, according to the report – accounting for almost half of all renters – in both urban and rural areas across the country, with minorities disproportionately affected.

“When we talk about cost burden, this could be the new normal,” Airgood-Obrycki, a researcher with Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The problem of unaffordable rental housing is a global one, according to World Bank, which found that the only affordable rentals in most fast-growing developing countries were insecure, in the informal sector and with poor living conditions.

About 65% of the U.S. population are homeowners, according to federal statistics, with most of the rest in rentals.

Since the 2008 recession, caused in part by a wave of homeowners unable to repay their mortgages, the number of cost-burdened renters has risen by 2.8 million, according to Apartment List, an online rental platform.

These people are forced to make difficult trade-offs.

“You might cut back on health care to pay for rent, or you might miss a rent payment, which could trigger eviction or homelessness,” Airgood-Obrycki said.

High-income renters have flooded the U.S. market, having either lost their homes or unable to afford to buy, leading to higher rents, the lowest vacancy rates since the mid-1980s and a spurt of rental construction tailored to them.

Households earning at least $75,000 per year accounted for three-quarters of the growth in renters since 2010 – up by 3.2 million – the Harvard study found.

In turn, the property prices for rental apartments have reached record highs, rising 150% between 2010 and late 2019.

“In the past decade, the lowest-income renters have seen a loss of more than 2 million apartments affordable to them and experienced increased evictions,” said Diane Yentel, chief executive of the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

“The report makes clear that the housing crisis is most acute for the lowest-income renters, particularly low-income black and Latino renters,” she said in emailed comments.

Millions of poor people who are eligible for housing subsidies have not received help as federal rental assistance programmes have grown by only about 1.5% annually in recent years, the Harvard report said.

(Reporting by Carey L. Biron, Editing by Katy Migiro. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)

California governor’s ‘homelessness tour’ seeks money, solutions to crisis on streets

By Dan Whitcomb

(Reuters) – California’s governor began a week-long “homelessness tour” on Monday seeking $750 million to address growing numbers of people living on the streets, stopping first in a rural community to show his state’s problems extend beyond the big cities of San Francisco and Los Angeles.

Democratic Governor Gavin Newsom last week asked state lawmakers to create the $750 million fund as part of his 2020-21 budget and plans to petition the federal government for additional money to help California’s Medicaid program improve services for the homeless.

“Homelessness isn’t just a concern in our cities, it’s a suburban issue and a rural issue, too. No Californian can say that homelessness is someone else’s problem,” Newsom, 52, said in kicking off his tour in Grass Valley, a town of about 12,000 in the Sierra Nevada mountains northeast of Sacramento.

“Every corner of our state has too many people living on the streets. And the crisis puts stress on public resources, from emergency rooms to jails to public works departments. It takes an unprecedented level of partnership between local, state, and federal government,” Newsom said in a prepared statement.

An estimated 130,000 people are homeless somewhere in California on any given day, more than any other state, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). California, home to about 39.6 million people, is the most populous state in the United States. Newsom and other California officials have traded barbs with U.S. President Donald Trump over the issue, with Trump blaming state and local leaders for failing to solve the problem.

On a visit to San Francisco and Los Angeles in September, Trump said conditions on their streets including trash, feces, and hypodermic needles left by homeless people were hurting their prestige.

That same month HUD Secretary Ben Carson rejected requests for more federal money.

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti formally asked the Trump administration for federal assistance on Monday in a letter that indicated the two sides had productive negotiations on the matter.

Newsom, who last week called for the emergency deployment of state-owned travel trailers and tents, was joined by state and local lawmakers on a visit to two homeless shelters in Grass Valley on Monday.

The first-term governor’s tour will also take him to Los Angeles County, the San Francisco Bay area and the Central Valley.

(Reporting by Dan Whitcomb in Culver City, California; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall

Florida communities scramble to help displaced Puerto Ricans

Puerto Rican Debora Oquendo, 43, makes a phone call to a doctor for her 10-month-old daughter in a hotel room where she lives, in Orlando, Florida, U.S., December 4, 2017.

By Robin Respaut and Alvin Baez

KISSIMMEE, Florida (Reuters) – At Leslie Campbell’s office in the central Florida city of St. Cloud, the phone will not stop ringing.

Director of special programs for the Osceola County School District, Campbell helps enroll students fleeing storm-ravaged Puerto Rico.

Her job has been a busy one. Since hurricanes Irma and Maria devastated the Caribbean in September, over 2,400 new students have arrived in the district. That is enough to fill more than two typical-sized elementary schools. Dozens more youngsters show up weekly.

“We’re just inundated, from the minute we come in, to the minute we leave,” said Campbell, who helps families obtain transportation, meals and clothing.

Across the country, state and local officials are scrambling to manage an influx of Puerto Ricans, a migration that is impacting education budgets, housing, demographics and voter rolls in communities where these newcomers are landing.

Florida, already home to more than 1 million Puerto Ricans, is on the front lines. About 300,000 island residents have arrived in the state since early October, according to Florida’s Division of Emergency Management. The influx is nearly 2.5 times the size of the Mariel boat lift that brought 125,000 Cubans ashore in 1980.

Some Puerto Rican arrivals have passed through Florida on their way to New York, Pennsylvania, Texas and other states. Some may eventually return home. But many will not. The island is still reeling months after Hurricane Maria, a Category 5 storm, wreaked catastrophic damage to homes, businesses and infrastructure. Nearly 40 percent of residents still lack electricity. The economy has been devastated.

For Florida, the inflow of Puerto Ricans is altering public budgets and perhaps the political calculus in a state that President Donald Trump won by a slim margin in 2016. Puerto Ricans, who are U.S. citizens, are on pace to overtake Cuban-Americans within a few years as the state’s largest Latino voting bloc. Many criticized the Trump administration’s hurricane response as inadequate.

Politicians are taking notice. Florida’s Republican Governor Rick Scott has reached out to these newcomers. The state has opened reception centers where Puerto Ricans can apply for food stamps and Medicaid, the federal healthcare system for the poor. Scott has asked for an additional $100 million in state spending to house arriving families, many of whom are doubled up with relatives or packed into aging hotels.

Washington, meanwhile, continues to wrestle with the question of how to help Puerto Rico, having long rejected the idea of a federal bailout for the insolvent U.S. territory, which filed for a form of bankruptcy in May. Congress appears unlikely to grant anywhere near the $94.4 billion the territory’s leaders estimate it would take to rebuild.

As federal lawmakers dither, state and local taxpayers are watching the tab to resettle islanders grow.

Statewide, more than 11,200 students from Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Island have enrolled in Florida public schools since the storms, according to the governor’s office. Most arrived after a deadline that determines state funding based on enrollment, resulting in an estimated loss for local districts of $42 million during the 2017 fall semester, a Reuters analysis shows.

Requests for public assistance climbed by 5 percent in Florida during the last three months of 2017, compared to the same period in 2016, according to state figures. Federal food stamp issuance, driven by victims of hurricanes Irma and Maria, jumped 24 percent or $294 million over the same period.

The state is also seeing more extremely ill patients from Puerto Rico.

Keyshla Betancourt Irizarry, 22, came to Florida in October on a humanitarian flight with her mother and brother. Suffering with the blood cancer Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, Betancourt was deteriorating fast on an island whose healthcare system is in tatters.

Now living in Orlando, she is on Florida’s Medicaid plan, which pays for her radiation treatments. The family has no plans to return to the territory.

“I cannot get the best medical help in Puerto Rico, and it has become even worse after Hurricane Maria,” Betancourt said.

Medicaid patients cost the federal government more on the mainland than in Puerto Rico, because Washington caps Medicaid funding sent to its territories. Such costs will only grow if Congress fails to stabilize Puerto Rico, said Juan Hernandez Mayoral, former director of the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration, which represents the territory in Washington.

“You can pay for it in the 50 states or you can pay much less in Puerto Rico,” Hernandez said. “The hurricane has sped up the migration.”

A Reuters photo essay (http://reut.rs/2AQmzh6) captures images of displaced Puerto Ricans in Florida.

CLASSROOM SQUEEZE

Central Florida was one of the country’s fastest-growing regions even before the disasters as Puerto Ricans fleeing a sputtering economy flocked here for jobs in the booming tourist trade. An estimated 360,000 have settled in the area, the largest concentration in Florida.

The Osceola County school district has enrolled thousands of new students in recent years, including nearly 2,700 in 2015-2016 alone. To accommodate them, the district hired more bilingual teachers, converted offices into classrooms, added portable units and built a new middle school. In 2016, voters approved a half-cent sales tax to provide more funding.

Hurricane Maria has compounded the urgency.

“We have students coming without clothes or records. Some are exhibiting symptoms of post-traumatic stress,” said Kelvin Soto, an Osceola County school board member. “We’re handling it well, but it’s straining our resources.”

Recent arrivals include Felix Martell and his five-year-old daughter Eliany, who settled in Ocala, Florida, about 80 miles (129 kilometers) northwest of Orlando. Martell is the sole caretaker for the child after his wife died two years ago. He worried Eliany’s education would suffer in Puerto Rico due to lengthy school closures following Maria.

Father and daughter are now living in a run-down hotel paid for by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Martell has yet to find a job. Still, he said there is no turning back.

“The girl has learned more in three weeks of school here than in the entire semester on the island,” he said. “I am concentrating on her future.”

TIGHT HOUSING

A shortage of affordable housing is acute for Puerto Rican emigres.

The Community Hope Center, a nonprofit in Kissimmee, Florida, south of Orlando, has been besieged with requests for shelter, according to Rev. Mary Downey, the executive director.

“People are calling us and saying, ‘we’re homeless now,'” Downey said. “It’s awful. There is simply not enough housing to meet the needs.”

Central Florida housing is a bargain compared to places such as New York or San Francisco, but it is beyond the reach of many newcomers lacking savings or jobs. Homes under $200,000 sell quickly, and Orlando-area rents are growing faster than the national average. Local officials say the situation could worsen as families that are doubling and tripling up eventually seek their own places.

Deborah Oquendo Fuentes, 43, and her 11-month-old baby girl Genesis Rivera share a FEMA-paid hotel room in Orlando after fleeing Puerto Rico in October. Oquendo, who found a part-time job that pays minimum wage, fears they will be homeless when that assistance runs out this month.

“I don’t have enough money to move to another place,” Oquendo said. “I feel alone, and I’m afraid.”

(Reporting by Robin Respaut and Alvin Baez; Editing by Marla Dickerson)

Is Haiti forgotten? Where is the media? They need our help!

Residents ask for food at the end of a food distribution after Hurricane Matthew in Saint Jean du Sud, Haiti,

By Kami Klein

A Picture. Hopefully for Haiti, it takes only one in this world of media, where the fight to grab the attention of the public shifts in seconds.  

Only a few weeks ago, as Hurricane Matthew made a direct hit on the poor country of Haiti, the news organizations were covering the devastation every hour and prayers were said around the world.  Now, there is an eerie silence in that same media for the Haitian people.

Over 90% of their homes are destroyed. All of their crops annihilated. Drinking water is slowly becoming poison.  There is no electricity and very little protection from the elements.  So many areas in Haiti are impossible to get to because of the damage.  Food is being airdropped but no one really knows the fate of these people shut off from medical help and the basic needs for life.  

Whether it is politically motivated or perhaps just the hunger for new stories to bring ratings in the media outlets, Haiti is already forgotten and the tragedy for these people  is only beginning.  

We will not forget the people of Haiti.

Thanks to Gary Heavin, founder and former CEO of the fitness chain Curves, producer and actor and a remarkable friend to this ministry, we are able to truly be of assistance. Gary has been on the ground and in the air helping Haiti.  He is one of the few that owns a cargo plane that can get to these remote places and has been tirelessly distributing the food and water filtration as well as solar flashlights and other necessities to these desperate people.  We KNOW that what we are sending is getting to those that really need it!   

We ask you to pray for Haiti and for those amazing people who are there in a great time of need!  We are also asking for your help!  It is through your donations that these emergency items for Haiti are possible. If you wish to help Haiti, please see the link below!   

 

Haiti Hurricane Relief

Flood kills 22 people in India, 170,000 homeless

A man rows a boat as they pull out a horse from the flooded river Ganga in Allahabad

NEW DELHI (Reuters) – Flash floods triggered by torrential rain have killed at least 22 people in India and forced more than 170,000 from their homes, officials said on Monday, as forecasters predicted more downpours in coming days.

India’s monsoon rains, though vital for agriculture, regularly bring death and destruction. The rain was 35 percent above average in the week that ended on July 6, the weather office said.

Twenty people were killed in the central state of Madhya Pradesh where 70,000 people were left homeless as water rose to dangerous levels along parts of the Narmada river.

Firemen waded through thigh-deep water to rescue women and children in flooded villages while rescue teams used inflatable boats to reach people stranded in urban areas.

“Thousands of people will be evacuated today. We are working on a war footing mode to set up relief camps,” additional home secretary Basant Singh said in Bhopal, the state capital.

“The health department is distributing medicines to prevent outbreak of water-borne diseases.”

Stormy weather also ravaged parts of the remote northeast.

Heavy rain pounded the tea-growing, oil-rich state of Assam killing at least two people. About 100,000 people were forced to take shelter on higher ground, officials there said.

The rain has also swelled the Brahmaputra river, which flows into Bangladesh, to dangerous levels.

Assam Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal ordered officials to distribute food, clothing and medicines to people who could not return to their homes.

(Reporting by Biswajyoti Das in GUWAHATI Rupam Jain in NEW DELHI, Editing by Tommy Wilkes, Robeert Birsel)