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Homeless students harder to identify during pandemic, new resources set to help Wausau area youth this fall

Published: Sep. 18, 2020 at 7:08 PM CDT
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WAUSAU, Wis. (WSAW) - “One of the more difficult things this year is to identify our homeless students,” Dr. Jeff Lindell, director of student services for the D.C. Everest School District noted after being asked what schools are seeing and doing to reach their homeless population this year.

"I mean, obviously it’s super important for us to get resources to families and kids, but when we’ve moved a thousand of our kids to a virtual program at parent request, we find it a little more difficult to identify who those students are and then the resources that we need to provide to them.”

One of the largest reporters of abuse, neglect, and struggles in youth are teachers and school staff in part because they are mandatory reporters, but also because they typically see students every day. But, as traditional schools operate more remotely, those adults are not seeing students the same way or in many cases, as frequently.

Lindell said they are continuing to build relationships with students and families to make connections and try to identify which students are in need and what those needs are.

“For us, it’s about building consistency where we can," Lindell explained. "We know that sometimes when you’re homeless, your home-life lacks a level of consistency. So, it’s what can we do in our buildings and within our system to build consistency for our students and make sure that we’re the one constant. That if nothing else is constant for them, we can be that for our students.”

Last year, 119 students were identified as homeless in the D.C. Everest district and 49 were identified as being in out-of-home care. Weston Elementary had the most out of the other schools in the district with 31 students with the Junior High second at 20 students. They are still working to identify which students are considered homeless this school year.

The Wausau School District had 146 students identified as homeless and 41 living in foster homes. They are also still working to identify students with those needs and have so far identified 47 students as homeless and 22 living in foster care.

Hillcrest House

Once those students in need of services are identified, the Wausau area will have a few new resources this fall to connect with students and families. One of those resources being the Hillcrest House, a youth shelter just up the street from John Muir Middle School across the street from Reservoir Park. The pandemic delayed its opening, as spring was going to be when Keep Area Teens Safe (KATS), the non-profit organization that created it, was planning to reach out to area businesses for donations.

“That was unable to be done with coronavirus,” Mary Jo Freeman, KATS board president, and founder said. “We just couldn’t go to a small business or a medium-size business, any-size business when they’re struggling and they’re employees are laid off and say, ‘give us money.’”

Through foundations prior to the pandemic supporting the project, they were able to raise about $850,000, which she said is a little more than half of what their original goal was. She said they believe they can still open this year after restructuring some things, with a new goal of opening up in November.

“This organization is needed now more than ever, I think, because oftentimes, who notices that the kids are being abused or that they’re struggling? It’s the homeless liaisons," she said, adding that the D.C. Everest district actually doubled their liaison positions because of the need. "Well now, who’s watching these kids? Nobody.”

The Hillcrest House, which will be staffed 24-hours a day, will be able to house up to eight kids between the ages of 12-17, though they will make exceptions for 18-year-olds in need depending on their circumstances. The shelter is targeted towards runaway or homeless teens who do no feel safe at home or find themselves in an unsafe situation with nowhere to go. She said they will be able to stay at the home for up to 30 days and be connected with social workers and community resources to create a long-term plan. There will be an intake process to determine if students who come meet the requirements for shelter. It is still in the process of setting up and readying for students to be served, with fresh paint now on the wall, new knobs on the cabinets, and donated artwork from the community.

North Central Health Care

In about a month, North Central Health Care is set to open its youth mental health hospital. It is the first in the area, which will allow youth in central Wisconsin to receive treatment locally rather than hours away, which has caused costly transportation costs and challenges for families to be near their children. Following that, it will open its youth crisis stabilization center, which will allow students a place to transition out of the mental health hospital or avoid the hospital.

“The pandemic certainly is exacerbating already unmet mental health and recovery needs in our community, and I think that’s what’s categorized as really the fourth wave of COVID is those needs that have been exacerbated over the last six months and certainly maybe even new challenges that people are facing as they struggle through this pandemic from a mental health standpoint," Michael Loy, the CEO of NCHC. "So, we expect to see that being more pervasive in our adolescent and children and we want to be there to support them if they’re in crisis, you know certainly get them stabilized, but then on a path to recovery and wellness as they deal with some of the challenges that are part of our everyday lives right now.”

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