In collaboration with the Center for Public Integrity, the Cap Times is exploring the issues specific to student homelessness in Madison and surrounding communities in a three-part series.
In the 2018-19 school year, 1,061 of the Madison Metropolitan School District’s 26,917 students were reported as homeless, or 3.9%. A year later, the number had grown to 1,244, or 4.6%, according to the most recent CPI data — even as total enrollment dropped slightly.
While districts neighboring MMSD had lower percentages, they fluctuated in different directions between the two years of data from CPI, with some rising and others falling, an illustration of the often quickly shifting situation districts and families face.
The Verona Area School District, for example, had 2.2% student homelessness in 2018-19, dropping to 1.4% in 2019-20. Similarly, the Stoughton Area School District dropped from a 2.1% rate in the first year to 1.4% in the second.
The Sun Prairie Area School District, however, rose from 1.6% to 1.9% and the McFarland School District saw a significant jump from 0.2% to 1.7%.
Slightly further out, the Sauk Prairie School District, just across the county border in Sauk County, had rates similar to Madison. In 2018-19, it was at 3.7% and in 2019-20, it grew to 4.1%.
Jani Koester has worked in MMSD’s Transition Education Program to support students experiencing homelessness for 33 years and described the current situation as both “challenging” and “resilient.”
“It has always been an issue of housing and availability of housing,” she said. “So I have come to understand that this is just always going to be here. It’s always going to be a part of our lives and our world.”
CPI gathered data on school districts nationwide to highlight student homelessness and identify places that may be undercounting them.
While Madison and other Dane County schools don’t fit the pattern of a severe undercount, Koester and other advocates are sure there are more than they’ve identified, given the prevalence of what’s known as “doubled-up homelessness.” That means one family, not listed on a lease or mortgage, is living with another in a space that isn’t large enough for both of them.
“We have a whole bunch of people who have nowhere to go but who happen to have a friend who will let them stay with them (for) a few days and then they go to a different friend for a few days — and because they have a roof over their head, they can't get into shelter,” she said.
Madison’s shelter system space makes it more challenging, she added, pointing to long waitlists. There are never enough spots available for the families, especially as other families come to the area looking for resources themselves, compounding the need.
“It's a cyclical thing that we have not taken the time to solve, because we're so busy dealing with the immediate crisis of someone not having somewhere to go without measuring it,” Koester said.
Doubled-up homelessness, often hidden from public view, is drawing more attention from advocates in communities in Dane County and throughout Wisconsin.
A few years ago, Koester and other community members created the Doubled-Up Homeless Workgroup to help individuals experiencing homelessness in this capacity because they are not eligible for most federal resources. In January, Dane County hired Johneisha Prescott as a housing strategy specialist, focused on combating the problem.
Arree Macon, a member of the Dane County Youth Action Board — a group of young people dedicated to ending youth homelessness — is a New York native and moved to Wisconsin after being homeless in his early teenage years.
He also serves on the Lived Experience Committee, one of the committees of the Homeless Services Consortium of Dane County, and hopes to educate others about youth homelessness.
“I wanted to share for those who are not aware that homelessness comes in many different forms,” Macon said at a Homeless Awareness Month event earlier this month held at the state Capitol. “There is doubled-up housing, there are folks living in cars, park benches, hotels, shelters. While many of our government officials try to figure out definitions for what is homeless and what is not homeless so they can figure out how to fund projects to end youth and adult homelessness, it is very complex.”
Macon said the trauma from the lived experience of homelessness carries on throughout an individual’s life. Even as an adult, with a full time job, two part-time jobs and being enrolled in school, he still fears financial instability and the risk of becoming homeless again.
“My goal is to make sure that no other teenager or other child ever has to worry about these things and there's always a system for support for youth, young adults, families and individuals who are (experiencing) homeless(ness).”
This series will provide data on student homelessness, information on how this issue is being addressed and ways that community members can help homeless youth and families.
“We also know that in Wisconsin and across our nation, the way it is that different people define homeless, or unhoused differs greatly,” said state Sen. Melissa Agard. “Some people may say, 'Oh, they're doubled up? They're OK.’ Or because they have a car that they can sleep in they're OK. Or because that little 5 year old has an auntie, he's OK.
“But words matter, and the ability to see each of our friends, neighbors and family members from the struggle that they are experiencing is vitally important,” she added. “As well as knowing how it is that we're defining this problem, so that we can actually solve it, is very important.”