According to the latest statistics available from the Arizona Department of Housing, there are nearly 2,500 homeless families in Arizona. And yes, some of them live right here in Graham County.
How do we know? The federal McKinney-Vento Education of Homeless Children and Youth Assistance Act.
Under the act, homeless children are guaranteed an education and each school district is allocated funds to ensure they receive the help they need.
Alison Villalobos is responsible for the homeless children who attend Safford Unified School District schools. Over the last five years, the district has assisted 20 to 35 homeless kids every year.
That number may not reflect the true number of homeless families in Safford either, Villalobos said. School districts don’t see families when their children are younger than five.
According to Villalobos, you could have encountered these children and never known it.
“People think of homeless people as those who are out living under a bridge or living in a tent, but our homeless children tend to be very unseen,” Villalobos said. “The people that I help, you won’t know they’re homeless.”
Under the McKinney-Vento act, people who are homeless could be:
Displaced and living in a shelter.
Living in a motel or campground due to the lack of an alternative adequate accommodation.
Living in a car, park, abandoned building, bus or train station.
Living with other people at their residence due to loss of housing or economic hardship.
Most of the children she sees are living at the Mt. Graham Safe House because of domestic violence issues or they’re sharing a home with multiple other families due to financial hardships, Villalobos said.
Some don’t see themselves as homeless, but if they don’t have the protection of a lease, they are, indeed homeless, Villalobos said.
People who live in a home with no water or heat are also considered homeless, Villalobos said.
SUSD and other area school districts help these students by providing free and reduced lunches, transportation, backpacks full of school supplies and entrance fees to online schooling, she said.
Every year SUSD receives around $7,000 to help the students; that amount is sufficient thanks to the many teachers and administrators who constantly donate school supplies, Villalobos said.
The district takes pains to ensure no one around them knows they are homeless, she said. When they need supplies, they just pickup a backpack in the office.
“We don’t have a huge homeless population, but for those who are homeless it’s a serious issue,” she said.
Sean Rickert, Pima Unified School District Superintendent, said they’ve helped eight students over the last five years under the act.
“I can tell you that most of the ‘homeless students’ we encounter qualify because they are doubled up with family members,” Rickert said. A lot of the time it’s because parents can’t afford to meet their expenses so they move into their parents’ home with their children.
“In some cases there may be substance abuse issues, and in others there may be law enforcement issues,” but the school district doesn’t ask those sorts of questions, Rickert said.
There have also been times when high school students aren’t living with their families, but again, the school district doesn’t investigate why that might be so, he said.
Thatcher Unified School District Superintendent Matt Petersen said his district has helped out five students over the last five years, primarily with transportation and school supplies.
Villalobos explained that if a child attends a school in one district, but finds themselves becoming homeless and living in another district, they’ll get the help they need so they can keep attending their original school.
Fort Thomas Unified School District Superintendent Shane Hawkins said they’ve helped three students over the last three years under the act