The number of students experiencing homelessness in Wyoming has gone way up in recent years, but there are few resources for homeless Wyomingites—and almost none specific to youth. As Wyoming Public Radio’s Aaron Schrank reports, public schools are on the front lines of identifying and advocating for these vulnerable young people.
High school was not an easy time for Katie Jeffery. Her living situation was constantly in flux. At 16, she had a miscarriage. On her 17th birthday, her mom kicked her out of the house for good—and she spent four months living on the streets of Cheyenne.
“Worst part is, nobody really noticed that I was homeless,” says Jeffery. “Because I showed up every day to school and did what I had to do. People would be like, ‘Are you going home?’ and I’d be like, ‘Yeah, I’m going home. I’m walking. I’ll see you later.’ Next day, I’d do it all over again.”
She spent her nights in hotels, friends’ cars, even a shed for a couple of weeks. During the day, she could be found at Triumph High School, an alternative school in Cheyenne. Jeffery managed to complete two years of coursework there in just six months.
“I actually got ahead in my classes—which is kind of surprising,” says Jeffery. “I think because I spent so much time in school. I was there for, on average, for about 14 hours per day, because it was the safest place I could be—and I was there until the janitors closed the building at 8:30.”
Aside from the school, Jeffery says there weren’t really any resources available for her—or other kids in her situation.
“Why isn’t there more in Cheyenne to help us? If I was a 35-year-old ex-con, there’s housing, there’s jobs, there’s cars. No problem,” says Jeffery. “I’m a 17-year-old female who’s trying to finish high school and I was given a box of food and a blanket and told to stay out of trouble.”
There are more than 200 homeless students in Laramie County and about 1,200 in all of Wyoming, according to the Wyoming Department of Education.
Terry Williams is co-chair of the Strong Families Action Committee, a group developing a plan to connect homeless students in Cheyenne with host families and other stable places to live.
“You know you’re looking at probably one and half or two percent of the kids who don’t actually have some kind of safe environment to go home to each night,” Williams says.
Williams says, for the most part, these kids aren’t pushing shopping carts or panhandling at intersections. They’re couch-surfing, out of sight. And that’s part of the reason they aren’t getting much help. The public doesn’t see the problem, and the federal agency that deals most with homelessness—the Department of Housing and Urban Development uses a definition of homeless that excludes them.
So, Williams says it’s up to community groups like his to help these kids.
“We certainly wouldn’t the fact that there wasn’t a place for those kids to stay to be the reason why they had to drop out of school, because obviously, graduation at a minimum is what it takes today in order to begin to define a future,” Williams says.
“Students who have experienced homelessness are the least likely to graduate in Wyoming,” says Kenya Haynes, the state coordinator for the education of homeless children and youth at the Wyoming Department of Education.
Haynes says, with scarce housing and an influx of energy workers, the number of homeless students in the state has increased nearly 70 percent since 2010. But the federal dollars Wyoming gets to improve educational access for these kids has remained stagnant at $150,000 per year.
“We’re only able to fund four or five districts in a given year,” says Haynes. “So, most of the state doesn’t really see the impact of a lot of that money.”
In some rural parts of the state, schools truly are the only resource available for homeless students. But some of Wyoming’s larger communities are doing a better job.
Amy Mendoza is prepping a turkey at Gillette’s Youth Emergency Services—or YES House—a youth residential treatment center. She’s a case worker for homeless and at-risk youth, and tonight, she’s hosting a Thanksgiving meal for some of her kids.
Among them is 18-year-old Alexis Clingman, who Mendoza placed with a host family last month. Before this, Clingman had been crashing with some friends—which she says was less than ideal.
“It made it hard for me to study for school,” says Clingman. “There was a lot going on and just wasn’t suitable for me being a fulltime student.”
Clingman has been on her own since her mom died two years ago, and hasn’t had much stability. She says the YES House has met some of her basic needs and freed her up to focus on school.
“I never have to worry about being homeless until the age I turn 21,” says Clingman. “They help me find funding for college. They make sure I always have a roof over my head. If I need something—like, even if my truck’s out of gas—whatever, they’re there to help me.”
Clingman will graduate this year from Westwood High School. She takes welding classes at Gillette College through a dual enrollment program and plans to go for her associate’s degree there next year.
“I can’t wait to actually walk away and say ‘I did it, I got a degree,’ and prove everybody wrong,” Clingman says.
But neither Clingman nor the YES House are the norm in Wyoming. Less than 25 percent of students have been homeless graduate from high school here.
For the first time, the state is developing a ten-year plan to reduce homelessness. It will be unveiled in the coming months, but administrators say it’s uncertain whether the plan will include any provisions for homeless youth.
These reports are part of ‘The American Graduate: Let’s Make It Happen’—a public media initiative to address the dropout crisis. Supported by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.