School superintendents back housing initiative for homeless

ST. PAUL, Minn. -- The superintendents of two large urban school districts Wednesday endorsed an initiative in the legislature to boost spending on housing for homeless Minnesotans.

Valeria Silva of Saint Paul and Bernadeia Johnson of Minneapolis spoke to reporters at the State Capitol about the importance of stable housing for thousands of children classified as homeless or highly mobile.

"The teachers give them home work at the end of the day, and they say go home, take 30 minutes of your day and do your homework," Silva told reporters.

"Some of the kids don't have a home. That's homework's not going to be a priority in their life. The priority's called survival. It is what am I going to eat, how am I going to sleep tonight, and am I going to be safe?"

A recent study by Wilder Research estimated there are 3,700 homeless persons under the age of 18 in Minnesota. Many of them attend public schools during the day and head to shelters or other temporary quarters at night.

One version of the public works construction bonding bill includes $20 million for new shelter construction, plus $80 million in future spending authority for the Minnesota Housing Finance Agency, which work with displaced families and others looking to keep or gain affordable housing.

A coalition known as the Minnesota Housing Partnership is working to promote awareness of the housing crunch for children.

Superintendent Johnson brought copies of letters written by middle school and high school students, urging lawmakers to back that part of the bonding bill.

"Some of these children have experienced homelessness and others describe it as 'couch hopping'," Johnson said.

"If you think about that term, it means you go into someone's home and you have to sleep on someone's couch."

By federal law school districts must provide transportation to get children and and forth from the shelters to their own schools. The Vento Act, authored by the late Minnesota Congressman Bruce Vento, requires that children be allowed to attend the school they were going to at the time their families became homeless.

"We are able to provide them transportation to keep one part of their life stable, and that is school," Silva explained.

The schools provide a variety of services for homeless and highly mobile children, including food, counseling and some medical care, but the superintendents said there's no substitute for a stable home that allows a child to focus on learning.

And yet very few shelters accept entire families, and shelter space in general is hard to come by as the nation's poor continue to struggle with the reverberations of the housing finance crisis.

"There's just no shelter today at least in the Twin Cities area that you would find space, and many of them have exceed what they can hold," Silva said.


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