The number of homeless students in the Anchorage School District has grown by 38 percent from this time last year, and large increases have also been recorded in the Fairbanks and Matanuska-Susitna Borough districts.
Social service providers and school district administrators attribute the jump in homeless students to one factor in particular: families from the Lower 48 moving to Alaska in search of higher-paying jobs.
"There's a lot of people coming up searching for a better way of living," said Susan Bomalaski, executive director of Catholic Social Services. "They have enough money for a week in a hotel, and then what do you do?"
As the nation's economy has sputtered over the past year, some breadwinners in the Lower 48 have begun to think of Alaska as the place where they can finally solve their financial worries. When those families come to Anchorage, often with little savings and few resources, they sometimes wind up living in shelters or doubled up with relatives. When that happens, the Anchorage School District is responsible for working to keep those children in school.
Since 2001, federal law has required every school district in the country to have a homeless liaison to help homeless students with enrollment, transportation, and tutoring. The Anchorage School District's program, Child in Transition/Homeless Project, has a staff of 14.
Last year, CIT/H helped 852 students between the start of the school year and Sept. 30, 2008. In the same period this year -- from the first day of school to Sept. 30 -- that number was 1,176, an increase of 38 percent. East High School has the highest homeless enrollment in the district, with 90 students currently being helped by CIT/H.
During the entire 2008-09 school year, CIT/H helped 1,996 homeless students. The number of homeless students jumped 15 percent last year, but was steady over the three years prior. The Anchorage School District enrolls about 50,000 students, and is the 87th-largest school district in the country, according to the district's Web site.
One of the major ways CIT/H keeps kids in school is by helping with transportation. Federal law says that a student has the right to continue attending the same school they were at when their family first became homeless. To fulfill that requirement, CIT/H gives gas vouchers to parents so they can afford to drive their kids to school, organizes buses to run students back to their original school, and as a last resort will even call a cab to drive a student to school.
Almost all of the ASD's homeless students are able to stay either at shelters or at the homes of friends and family, couch-surfing from house to house for a few days at a time.
"A large portion of families are in doubled-up situations," said Dave Mayo-Kiely, program coordinator for CIT/H. "The number of families on the street is pretty low. They are at least out of the elements."
The waiting lists for families trying to get into Anchorage shelters are long. McKinnell House, run by the Salvation Army, is the only shelter in town that will house two-parent families or single fathers with children. McKinnell House can house 16 families at a time, and currently has a waiting list that's 35 families long.
Myths about Alaska that circulate through the Lower 48 contribute to the problem. Stories about pipeline jobs, no taxes, and big state checks spur some families to make the move north.
"I've heard a lot of people say 'I thought I was going to get a PFD right away,'" said Nathan Madsen, a case manager for Beyond Shelter, a CSS program that helps homeless families transition into housing. Catholic Social Services also runs two homeless shelters, two residences for homeless teens, and a number of other social programs.
"As I'm talking to people, they say they lost their jobs in the lower 48 and came up here looking for work," said Leona McDaniels, the Fairbanks School District's sole homeless liaison.
McDaniels said that so far this year she's identified 208 homeless students, and at this time last year she only had 160. The Fairbanks School District's total enrollment is over 14,000.
McDaniels also cited the Yukon flooding as a reason for the increase, and said that she sees a lot of homeless kids coming in from the villages.
McDaniels has been working with a family from Florida who moved to Fairbanks because they were "tired of life in the big city." Until recently the family had been living in a tent at River's Edge Resort, an RV park and campground on the Chena River, while the son attended West Valley High School.
After a cold autumn in the tent, the family recently moved to a cabin just outside town, McDaniels said, and both parents are working.
The homeless liaison at the Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District, Dave Rose, has also seen large increases in the number of homeless students in his district.
"In the first six weeks we've identified 375 homeless students. That's at least double what we saw last year," Rose said. Last year he counted 646 homeless students for the whole year, and he says he expects the total number this year to come closer to 900.
The Mat-Su Borough School District has an enrollment of 16,470 students and is the second largest school district in the state, according to the district's Web site.
Job-hunting cheechakos are not the only reason for the high numbers of homeless students. Migration out of rural Alaska, limited affordable housing, and the economic downturn have all played a part.
"I came here for the same reason a lot of families did -- living in rural Alaska is expensive," said Madsen, the Beyond Shelter case manager, citing the high cost of fuel and rent for village residents.
Mayo-Kieley said there is a constant stream of people from rural Alaska moving to Anchorage and becoming homeless, and added that the economic downturn hasn't helped.
"There's lots of people living on the edge, so as fuel prices go up and wages go down, the housing piece went out on them," he said.
Even in urban Alaska, housing isn't cheap, and demand for assistance is high. Bomalaski said there's a 5,000-person waiting list for housing vouchers from Alaska Housing Finance Corp.
"There is not much affordable housing in Anchorage," Bomalaski said.
Homelessness doesn't necessarily indicate joblessness, either, said Barb Dexter, a secondary teacher specialist in the CIT/H program. Many of the homeless students in Anchorage have parents who work but still can't afford to get into an apartment.
"There are jobs up here, but not the jobs that allow a family to support a lot of children," Dexter said. "If you have two wage earners earning $10 an hour, trying to feed six people and have first and last month's rent, it just doesn't work."
Contact Joshua Saul at jsaul_alaskadispatch.com.