When Velma Parker, homeless liaison for the Wilkinsburg School District, recently showed a movie about homelessness to high school student council members, she didn't realize how close to home it would hit for some of them.
After the movie ended, three siblings, Ashley Boyer, 18, Brittany Boyer, 16, and Michael "M.J." Adetona, 15, all honor roll students, approached her to say it made them realize they were homeless.
They recently lost their home after their single mother, Darlenea Adetona, was diagnosed with fibromyalgia -- an ailment characterized by fatigue and chronic muscle pain -- and could no longer work. They were forced to move in with their grandfather, who also is sick.
More and more, children are being identified as homeless due to both economic conditions and increased efforts by school districts to recognize them.
In a nine-county region served by the Allegheny County Intermediate Unit's Homeless Children's Initiative, the number of homeless students increased from 1,308 in the 2007-2008 school year to 2,146 students in the 2008-2009 school year -- a 64 percent increase.
In addition, more school districts in that region are serving homeless children, increasing from 25 to 37 district during the same period, with more suburban districts added to the mix last school year. The Pittsburgh Public Schools -- the region's largest district -- has the largest number of homeless students enrolled.
Nationwide, the number of homeless children enrolled in school districts grew by about 17 percent during that time, according to a survey by the National Association for the Education of Homeless Youth.
The poor economy and a loss of jobs were the main reasons given in the survey, said Barbara Duffield, policy director for the national association.
Children are considered homeless if they "lack a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence," according to the McKinney-Vento Act, initially passed in 1987. The act ensures that homeless children have the same rights to public education as other children.
The act covers not only children who are living in homeless shelters but also those who are living with a friend or family member because they lost their residence, whether due to economic hardship or emergencies such as fires or floods.
It also includes families living in any type of transitional setting such as hotels, motels, campgrounds, cars, abandoned buildings, bus or train depots and migratory children.
Once Ms. Parker learned that the three children were homeless, she was able to arrange help for them, including free lunches and school clothing.
"It was like a really big weight was lifted off of my shoulders," said Ms. Adetona, who said she was able to work and provide for her children until she became ill.
Wilkinsburg saw its number of homeless students enrolled grow from 120 in 2007-08 to 261 in 2008-09, with most of them living doubled up with friends and relatives. So far this year, 132 have been identified, but Ms. Parker worries there may be more.
She believes there are others out there like Ms. Adetona, who are finding themselves homeless for the first time.
"Everybody thinks that a homeless person is a drunk on the street," Ms. Parker said. "But there are new homeless out there who have never been homeless before."
That belief is supported by a recent study commissioned by the Homeless Children's Education Fund, a Pittsburgh agency that advocates and provides services for homeless children.
Of 139 parents of school-aged children living in local homeless shelters, 70 percent said they were experiencing their first episode of homelessness, according to the agency's study.
When families become homeless, the issue of where their children will attend school and how they will get there can become confusing for parents.
The McKinney-Vento Act requires every school district to designate a homeless children's liaison and to enroll homeless children, even if they lack immunization and academic records.
Districts must provide transportation to children living in shelters or other temporary locations.
If the family becomes homeless and is forced to move outside the school district that the children have attended, transportation back to that district must be provided while they are homeless.
If the family chooses to send the children to the school district where their temporary housing is located, the district must accept them.
Staying in the same school can provide much needed stability for a family in turmoil, said Joseph Lagana, founder of the Homeless Children's Education Fund.
In addition, changing schools frequently can affect a child's academic success. Research has shown that each time a child changes schools, he or she is set back academically by an average of four to six months, the recent education fund study stated.
The AIU's homeless children's initiative in recent years has worked to help school officials recognize and serve homeless students.
Gail Odorcich, initiative program director, said she believes that education effort has contributed to the local increase in the number of students identified as homeless.
"There is definitely more of an awareness on the part of school officials now," Mrs. Odorcich said.
This year, the state organized a Homeless Education Task Force/Advisory Board aimed at helping to ensure homeless children are served in a "holistic, integrated approach" to meet educational, health, social, emotional and human services needs.
In 2006-07 -- the school year for which the most recent statistics were available -- the state Department of Education estimated 10,049 homeless school-aged children were enrolled in schools statewide.
In smaller districts like Clairton, which has about 820 students, the effort to identify homeless students is a bit easier than in larger districts. Clairton counts 39 homeless students enrolled this school year, including 27 who live in residences provided by Sisters Place -- an agency that provides temporary and permanent housing to single-parent families -- and 12 who are doubled up with relatives or others.
"We make a personal check on all of our students to make sure they are fed and clothed. We do it for all of our kids, but we go above and beyond for our homeless students to try to make them feel comfortable in their community," said Angela Cooper, the district's test coordinator, who also helps with the homeless students.
But in large school systems such as Woodland Hills, with an enrollment of more than 4,800 students, it's easier for homeless students to get lost in the crowd despite the best efforts of school staff.
According to the AIU statistics, the number of homeless students in the Woodland Hills district more than doubled in the past school year, from 50 in 2007-2008 to 113 in 2008-2009.
Kellie Irwin, Woodland Hills home and school visitor and homeless liaison, said the district had identified 60 homeless students by the end of November, including 49 who were living with friends or relatives and 11 living in shelters.
Ms. Irwin said some families are either reluctant to identify themselves as homeless or afraid to tell school officials they've been forced to move outside of the district for temporary shelter.
"If they would go to stay with a family member in Penn Hills, they don't want to tell us because they are afraid their children won't be able to continue to attend our schools since they are outside of the district," Ms. Irwin said.
In fact, if district officials were apprised of the situation, they would make arrangements to transport the students to their Woodland Hills schools and provide them with free lunches. The district also could connect the family with social service agencies.
Janet Yuhasz, health services coordinator and homeless children's liaison for the Pittsburgh Public Schools, also said it's easier to identify students who are living in homeless shelters than doubled up with relatives and friends because shelter officials know how to help parents enroll their children in school.
She said school staff are told to look for the "red flags" signaling homelessness that could include mail sent to students' homes being returned as undeliverable, phone numbers being disconnected, or students being absent frequently or showing up at school unkempt.
In Pittsburgh, the number of homeless students increased from about 400 in 2007-08 to about 500 in 2008-09, a number that appears to be holding steady for this year.
Najeena Walker and her family of three sons are among those statistics.
In February, her bills grew far beyond her income, she was evicted from her residence and she and her 5-year-old son were forced to move to a shelter. Her two teenage sons were too old to be permitted in the shelter and went to live with their father in Duquesne.
As Ms. Walker shuttled from one temporary shelter to another, her 5-year-old continued to attend Pittsburgh Liberty K-5 uninterrupted. Her oldest son, who attended a charter school, received transportation from his father's home to the school.
But her middle son got lost in the shuffle and missed nearly two months of school before enrolling in East Allegheny.
Because Ms. Walker didn't realize he qualified for transportation back to his Pittsburgh school, the family tried to enroll him in high school in Duquesne. But the Duquesne district closed its high school in June 2007 and now sends its secondary students to West Mifflin or East Allegheny high school. That created confusion for the family about where and how to register the boy for school.
In May, Ms. Walker was accepted into a program operated by Sojourner House Moms and now has found permanent housing in the East End. All three of her sons are living with her again. The oldest graduated in the spring, the middle son is attending Pittsburgh Peabody High School and her youngest is still at Liberty.
She now is laid off but is attending an educational program, with a goal of becoming a carpenter's apprentice.
Ms. Walker's advice to others who find themselves homeless is this:
"It's just about persevering, making the connections, having the rapport with people. I had to put my pride aside and realize that I need help and I'm not the only one."
Mary Niederberger can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-851-1512.