HOMELESS KIDS: Hiding in plain sight


B.C. Kowalski/City Pages

Jim Nick, sorting through donations at his office in Rib Mountain—items to help the 300 local homeless students.

About a month ago, Jim Nick was having a burger at Hiawatha Lounge in Wausau when an old friend, Wausau East Principal Brad Peck, walked in and struck up a conversation.

Nick told Peck, “You know, I went to Wausau East, and I’ve been thinking about how I could help the kids there who might need a little leg up. Got any ideas?”

Peck had ideas, all right, especially for the dozen or so students at the school who don’t have permanent homes.

Nick was shocked. Homeless kids in Wausau? Like everyone, of course, he knew on some level about homeless people in the area. But he hadn’t considered the idea of homeless children. He knew he had to help. So he started by gathering the facts, while gathering up a few packages of essentials to donate.

What he soon learned made his resolve to help even more urgent: There currently are 132 homeless students in the Wausau School District and another 167 at D.C. Everest schools, according to state Department of Public Instruction data.

“All of a sudden, my little project went from helping 13 kids to helping about 300,” Nick says. “I had no idea the problem is this big. No one I’ve been talking to had any idea the problem is this big.”

These kids often go through school without many of the things other students take for granted: boots, jackets, socks and other warm clothing. With parents struggling to pay for the basics, expenses like sports fees and expensive graphing calculators (a requirement for math and science classes) are simply out of reach.

Nick, a local insurance agent, figured a few of his friends might be able to pitch in, so he posted a plea for help on Facebook. The response was immediate and overwhelming, Nick says. Messages and phone calls poured in—more than 350 to date—and he realized that, with help from friends and local business owners, he could make an even bigger impact and help kids at the other schools, too.

A troubling trend

The number of homeless children in U.S. public schools has doubled since the beginning of the 2008 recession, reaching a record national total of 1.36 million in the 2014-2015 school year, according to federal data. That latest count, an 8% increase over the 2013-2014 school year, shows that many families are continuing to struggle financially.

With nearly 3% of the nation’s public school children and more than 2% of local students now homeless, school officials face a growing challenge to educate an increasing number of children with serious life challenges.

The problems reach far beyond finding a warm place to sleep, Brad Peck says. Homeless children are more likely to be diagnosed with learning disabilities, more likely to miss school and change schools, drop out, and score lower on standardization tests. That means teachers often find themselves working not only to help children learn but also to clothe them, keep them clean and counsel them through a myriad of personal challenges.

Most of the homeless students in the Wausau metro area aren’t living under bridges, though some undoubtedly are. Some live at the Salvation Army shelter in Wausau, while others are at The Women’s Community or have been placed in local motels through North Central Community Action programs. But most, says United Way Communications Director Sue Haupt, are stuck in a constantly revolving door, living with various family members or friends for days or weeks before moving on.

“‘Couch surfing’ is a term we hear a lot,” Haupt says. “These are the kids who have no permanent residence, moving from house to house and couch to couch.”

Peck says the actual homeless count could be higher than the official numbers. Because of the many reasons students are homeless, coupled with their efforts to avoid the child welfare or criminal justice system, many kids take great pains to hide their homelessness, even if asked directly.

“Most high school students will do anything they can to avoid being singled out or labeled,” Peck says. “They mask hunger, they mask poverty, any way they can.”

Some Wausau area youth are classified as “unaccompanied,” meaning they’re homeless without a family member. They are completely by themselves. Some age out of foster care. Some leave home because of abuse — verbal, physical or sexual. Others are kicked out when they come of age because their parents can’t afford to keep them. Those with special needs or sexual identity issues may leave because of conflicts with their parents. Sometimes the parents themselves have drifted in and out of homelessness, and their kids have simply had enough.

Many schools, including those in the Wausau metro area, receive federal funds to help connect homeless students with support services. But that funding has not kept pace with the need: In fiscal 2006, the U.S. Department of Education distributed $61.8 million for homeless youth programs. Seven years later it was $61.7 million, then $65 million in 2014.

Yet some inroads are being made. The federal McKinney-Vento Act, which was renewed this year, requires each school district to designate a homeless liaison. This person is meant to ensure that all homeless children have equal access to educational programs and services.

For local schools, that task typically falls to guidance counselors, Peck says.

How do schools make the connection? Simple observation, mostly. Teachers identify students who appear to have personal struggles. Those students are discreetly asked to visit the guidance counselor, who tries to find out what challenges the students face, and what needs they have.

The national program also calls for school officials to identify and immediately enroll any homeless child or youth, even without academic or medical records, provide transportation and develop partnerships with community agencies to assist with basic needs for homeless families.

First ever school-based supply of needs

Armed with a new understanding of the problem, Nick, who owns American Family Insurance agencies in Rib Mountain and Athens, is now deeply invested in an all-out effort to make life easier for local homeless students. He spends hours each week calling on colleagues, local businesses and friends to pitch in. He has set up drop boxes at a number of area businesses.

And the help started pouring in. Checks appeared on his desk. Strangers walked up to him at businesses and restaurants, handing him cash.

“It was kind of unbelievable, how much people want to help,” Nick says. “I think the desire to help has always been there, but no one seemed to know how to go about it.”

Since launching the effort, Nick raised well over $12,000 in cash and supplies. He spent nearly $2,000 on socks and underwear and bought 90 cases of water, 30 for each high school. He gathered dental supplies from local dentists: toothpaste, tooth brushes and floss. He is working with a local business to pay for new boots. He also ordered 250 Jansport backpacks, all high quality, in bright colors, that he intends to deliver to the schools when they arrive next week.

“I wanted the kids to have something nice, something good quality that they can put their lunch in,” Nick says. “I don’t want these kids feeling like homeless kids. Because, can you imagine what that has to feel like?”

All the supplies Nick has acquired are stored at two central facilities, one for each school district. For the first time, all Wausau and DC Everest school principals and guidance counselors have a well-stocked supply of items they can discreetly distribute to students in need.

Some cash donations are going to the John A. Waldron Student Assistance Fund, which addresses emergency needs for students and families. The fund also helps students pay fees for extracurricular activities and transportation costs, Peck says.

Food donations are being funneled to Blessings in a Backpack, a local organization that provides weekend food supplies for needy students in both school districts.

Nick has other ideas he’d like to help the schools implement. A friend of his in Kansas City, for example, launched an initiative in which volunteers wash clothing for students on a regular basis—laundry is often out of reach for homeless families. Nick is asking the schools to consider adopting a similar program, with adult volunteers coming in once a week to wash a few loads.

“Something as simple as that can go a long way toward increasing self esteem,” Nick says. “It can reduce bullying. And I think it’s something completely doable.”

Nick says, the effort has to be ongoing. Kids are thrust into homelessness often unexpectedly and are sometimes forced to leave their homes with nothing but the clothing on their backs. He set up a “Help the Kids” checking account and is accepting donations to address those situations as they come up. The goal is to have a steady stream of funds available to help students with immediate needs as they happen.

“If I ask you, you ask three friends, those friends ask three more, pretty soon we’ve got a whole lot of support for kids who don’t have a whole lot of hope,” Nick says. “It’s the least we can do.”

How to donate:

Checks can be dropped off or mailed to Nicolet National Bank, 2100 Stewart Ave., or 3845 Rib Mountain Drive, made out to the Jim Nick Help the Kids fund. All funds will be used to meet the needs of homeless students.

Donation boxes set up at these locations:

• American Family Insurance: 5406 Rib Mountain Dr., Wausau; 129 ½ Alfred St., Athens; 670 Maratech Ave., Marathon

• Traditions Cleaners: 207 Central Bridge St. or 2111 Stewart Ave.

• Dale’s Weston Lanes: 5902 Schofield Ave.

• Hometown Motors: 1700 Bus. Hwy. 51, Wausau

Items being collected:

• New and gently used coats, boots, warm weather gear, backpacks

• New socks and underwear

• Hygiene supplies: Toothpaste, toothbrushes, deodorant, feminine supplies, shampoo, conditioner, soap, body wash