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Idaho State Dept. of Education working to better identify, serve young homeless families

The education department is partnering and building awareness with early childhood education and child care providers to track the numbers and help young families support their children's needs so they'll be ready for school.

A harrowing statistic: One in 20 Idaho children under 6 years old experienced homelessness in 2015.

Those young families are a more invisible population - one the Idaho State Department of Education is working to better identify and serve. U.S. Housing and Urban Development (HUD) reports show children 5 years old and younger are most at risk of being homeless.

Last school year, there were 7,820 students in K-12 experiencing homelessness in our state. The Idaho State Department of Education is now responsible for working with other agencies to report early childhood homeless numbers. Sadly, they say more than 6,300 children 6 years old and younger were considered homeless last school year.

MORE: Homeless students in Idaho schools on the rise

The highest numbers of K-12 homeless students are in grades kindergarten through third, then numbers steady out, but spike upward as students reach 11th or 12th grade.

"It took when I got into trouble it took me almost losing my son,” a Meridian single mom, Stephanie, told KTVB (She chose not to disclose her last name for publication). "It all spiraled down; I had lost control of everything that was going on in my life."

She was living in a homeless shelter for 10 months with her then 4-year-old son as she worked through a treatment program.

“He didn't even know what we were doing, where we were, what it was called when we were staying at the homeless shelter. He just called it the church because it looked like a church,” Stephanie said.

“It was an awful time. And for my son to be put into that, it sucked. It hurt me all the time to go there with him... It was hard,” she added. "You don't feel stable, you don't feel whole. You feel like half. You feel worthless... It's scary, it's a scared feeling. Your stomach just is tight all the time and you're so stressed out and everything about it is awful."

Stephanie struggled to find housing until she found Charitable Assistance to Community's Homeless (CATCH), Inc. and applied for their program.

“Once I got into a place everything has just been soaring from that point on. I have been doing well, I have an amazing job now,” she said.

Her and her son's is a success story with a dark start.

“His attitude went from zero to 60,” Stephanie said of her now 6-year-old son. "He was acting out, he was angry. He still has his moments."

"It was hard for him to be in that situation but he didn't know what that situation was," she added.

But it was a situation that's all too common in Idaho; state reports show younger families are having a difficult time finding housing.

"I absolutely believe lack of affordable housing is an issue,” Idaho State Department of Education Homeless Education Coordinator Suzanne Peck told KTVB. "We're doing a better job identifying families and students in need and finding ways to support them."

Experts say early childhood homelessness has long-lasting impacts on their emotional, social and psychological well being. Peck says students who have faced Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) are more likely to have developmental delays and behavioral issues.

"We're seeing a lot of students having some pretty severe emotional, behavioral, social issues. A lot of it is because of that toxic stress they're living in. When you don't know where you're going to lay your head and don't know if you're going to have a meal, school is that safe place. It affects them academically," Peck told KTVB. "It takes much more intervention at an early age to be able to support their needs."

"I think that the kids probably act out at school. I'm sure school work is probably affected because they don't have a home setting to go down and sit at the dinner table to do their homework. They don't have that structured setting,” Stephanie said. "It changes them.”

Access to educational services can help mitigate some negative effects, but federally-funded early childhood education (ECE) programs only serve a small chunk of those children.

In 2015 in Idaho, data shows 14 percent of young children experiencing homelessness were served by Head Start/Early Head Start or McKinney-Vento-funded ECE programs, while the remaining 86 percent were unserved.

Identifying and reporting for young homeless children is different than identifying and reporting school-aged kids. Current data on early childhood homelessness comes from the Idaho Housing and Finance Association, which is the state U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) organization; from Head Start programs; and from State Department of Education subgrants (there are 10 school districts throughout the state in some larger areas that have those homeless subgrants and they identify and support younger siblings).

“There’s very few early educational opportunities in the state of Idaho. And for those students, those families that are experiencing homelessness they're even fewer,” Peck told KTVB.

The Idaho State Department of Education is beginning to address this, partnering and building awareness with early childhood education and child care providers to track those numbers and help young families support their children's needs so they'll be ready for school.

“They are our future, our future students,” Peck told KTVB. "People don't realize that our tiny tiny people are struggling and they need support."

Peck says the state needs to do a better job identifying young children who may be living in unstable conditions, so they are working jointly with other agencies and programs to train early childhood providers on the signs of homelessness and to share data and information so they can better support young families and their children.

"When those developmental milestones and developmental markers they're lacking some at an early age, the students will not be prepared for kindergarten," Peck added.

There are homeless liaisons in every school district, and the state is training them to make them aware of other agencies and resources they may not know of.

Educational programs in place to help these children include:

The Infant Toddler program for kids 0-3 years old with a developmental delay; developmental pre-schools through IDEA for students with specific needs; Head Start and Early Head Start, which are statewide and help support parents with understanding development, but may be difficult for rural populations to access; and a few districts have preschool programs through Title IA funding now as part of an effort to improve student achievement outcomes.

But as mentioned, that's not very many educational opportunities for preschool-aged children.