Homeless youth walk a hidden path in rural Oklahoma
Anika Drew is drawn to beauty. Her boyfriend said she can stand in a barren field and still point out a pretty flower. Drew dreams of going to beauty school to become a makeup artist and moving to Japan to see the pink cherry blossoms.
For now, the 17-year-old wanders Woodward with her boyfriend. For the past year, they have slept in abandoned trailers and a trashed apartment. They have pitched a tent on the trails behind Woodward High School and couch-surfed at friends’ houses.
A few weeks ago, they made a deal with a local motel owner: Drew would work cleaning rooms and her boyfriend Nicholas Stone, 18, would mow the lawn in exchange for a room at the Wayfarer Inn.
“It’s not a path for a princess,” Drew said, ducking under branches to a spot off the roadside where the couple set up their tent. Neighboring a junkyard filled with piles of rusty cars and strewn tires, the campground where Drew and Stone spent much of their winter was covered in heavy brush, trash and water flooding the area.
Drew and Stone are part of a 29% increase in homeless youth living without a parent or guardian in Oklahoma from 2020 to 2022 — one of the largest increases in the nation, according to the 2022 Annual Homelessness Assessment Report. One professor studying the issue estimated there could be more than 120,000 homeless youth in Oklahoma.
Living in Woodward, a rural town of fewer than 12,000 in northwest Oklahoma, Drew and Stone have less access to shelters and services. In rural areas, schools are often a primary means of support, where students have access to teachers and trusted adults. Each school district also has a homeless liaison. Several rural district liaisons said that they have helped students get jobs and taken students to food banks. However, as staff members tasked with identifying and meeting the needs of, at times, hundreds of students, their jobs come with limitations.
To help keep track of homeless students, a new state law aims to improve how districts identify and count students. Liaisons said by lessening absences and making it to graduation, homeless students have a better chance of breaking the cycle of poverty.
Drew will be a sophomore and Stone will be a senior when school starts next month. They said they missed most of the last school year after being kicked out for low grades and missing credits, but that they hope to return to the high school’s alternative education program. For school-age youth not attending school, like Drew and Stone, and children younger than school age, not much data exists — causing youth homelessness to often go severely underreported.
Based on a homeless resource map created by University of Oklahoma researchers, 22 rural Oklahoma counties lack any homeless shelter or resource center, and many others only have one or two, miles from other corners of the county. In Woodward, there are two: one available at night and another, The Day Center, available from 8:30 am to 4:30 pm.
The overnight shelter has eight individual rooms and one family room, but Drew and Stone’s 13 pets — their cat, Mittens, their two dogs, Narnia and Chubz and Narnia’s 10 pups, prevent them from being able to stay there. Instead, this summer they often walked to The Day Center, where showers, a kitchen, couches and a job board are available during business hours.
Shanna Gonser runs The Day Center. Since opening in April 2022, Gonser said the center has served 156 clients with about seven people coming in each day.
Gonser said she rarely encounters homeless youth because many are so-called couch homeless and doubled up with another family. That form of homelessness is twice as common for youth in rural communities, according to a University of Chicago study.
Based on data collected by Woodward Public Schools, however, Drew and Stone are not alone. The district identified 113 homeless students during the 2018-2019 school year, the most recent year available.
Since leaving their families last August due to what they described as unstable and abusive households, Drew and Stone said they have not met another homeless teen. That may be partly due to their absence from school, but for all they know, they said, they’re the only ones.
“They don’t want a lot of people to know that they’re in that situation,” Gonser said. “It’s embarrassing to them, so they don’t go out and look for others that are in the same situation.”
Drew said it’s difficult for her to compare her situation to how she sees others her age living.
“Worthless,” Drew said. “It makes me feel worthless.”
Homeless in High School
Homeless liaison Elizabeth Ressel works at Comanche Public Schools, just east of Lawton, where about 16% of students are classified as homeless. Over the years, she has used federal funding to provide students with supplies for extracurricular activities and pay fees for students’ classes.
The McKinney-Vento Act of 1987 requires that homeless youth have access to the same public education as other students. The act defines homelessness as lacking a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence, which might mean students living in motels, trailer parks, cars, in abandoned houses or doubled-up with another family. This definition is more lenient than that of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which does not consider someone homeless if they are staying with others or in a motel.
Through the act, schools receive extra funding for homeless students that can be used for clothing, food, school supplies and class fees. Congress also mandates one homeless liaison per district to be in charge of identifying homeless students and connecting them with resources in the community.
In addition to using federal money, Ressel said she and other outreach coordinators at the school have identified student needs and received donated items to meet them.
“We’ve had students who, you know, they’ll call and they’ll say, ‘I can’t come; my clothes are wet. I washed ’em last night and we don’t have a dryer. And I thought they’d dry overnight,’” Ressel said. “They don’t want to come to school with wet clothes, so at our alternative school, we [now] have a washer and dryer. Our high school has a washer and dryer.”
Further east of Comanche, Wilson Public Schools homeless liaison Claudia Labeth said 5% of students in the district were homeless.
With the closest shelter 25 minutes away in Ardmore, Labeth said the biggest day-to-day challenge for her students is figuring out where they will sleep that night.
Unreliable housing affects a student’s ability to attend school and graduate. About one-third of students experiencing homelessness missed 15 or more days of school, according to the National Center for Homeless Education. Labeth said to help combat this problem, she tries to show how school is needed to attain a good job and eventually a home.
“‘What do you want your future to look like, and how can we get there?’” Labeth said she often asks her students. “School is a big part of it, so making school relevant to their future so they can live maybe a way they want to live instead of the way that they're kind of living in the present. I think that's the key for me.”
In addition to designated liaisons like Labeth, schools provide students with a network of caring and connected adults. Regular conversations with teachers, counselors and other staff can help identify if students are at-risk or struggling.
“Usually, the students will say, ‘Well, you know, I had a home and now I've been forced out and don't know what I'm going to do,’” Wilson High School agriculture teacher Joseph Buzidragis said. “And we actually see this quite often in a small town.”
This was the case when Buzidragis took in 16-year-old Kasper Hamilton in May 2022. He has since become Hamilton’s legal guardian.
Hamilton had lived with his father and stepmother until his father died in a November 2022 car accident. He and his siblings were kicked out by his stepmother in May. Because Buzidragis knew the situation, Hamilton did not have to worry about finding a place to stay.
“We told him that we would do everything in our power to make sure he gets through high school and if he decides to go to college, to go to college or go to work, whichever he chooses,” Buzidragis said. “That way we’d be there for him, not trying to take a parent’s spot, but give him some safety and a place to live and kind of enjoy high school without having to worry.”
Buzidragis said he has faced day-to-day challenges in getting Hamilton to open up emotionally and socially. His aim is to show Hamilton that he is wanted.
“It's rewarding, because you see, like this young man, you see their eyes start to light up as they see that we are not just going to throw them to the wayside,” Buzidragis said.
Falling Between the Cracks
Sarah Svec has been working to address gaps in homeless data collected in southwest Oklahoma. As executive director of Family Promise, she collaborates with Lawton Public Schools, where about 700 students are homeless, according to the most recent data available. By engaging with families, Svec said she has encountered youth who do not seek help because they do not realize they would be considered homeless by public schools. One barrier to identification is virtual education, which she said is common for homeless children.
“They're not getting the teacher that sees they're coming in with dirty clothes every day,” Svec said. “Part of what makes everybody successful at helping people that are experiencing homelessness is being able to identify people that are experiencing homelessness.”
Another barrier is that homeless youth frequently move, sometimes to other districts. In the most recent available data, 371 school districts reported fewer than three homeless students in their schools. Rural nonprofit leaders said they do not believe that is true of any district.
To improve homeless identification in schools, Gov. Kevin Stitt recently signed into law a measure requiring the Department of Education to report the number of homeless students by district and grade level starting Nov. 1.
While the law might improve the counts of students, it does not address the population of homeless youth that are not yet school-age or are not attending school. Both Sisu Youth Services and Pivot, nonprofit organizations focused on youth homelessness in Oklahoma City, said many youth prioritize getting food and finding stable housing before going back to school.
David McLeod is one of three University of Oklahoma professors who partnered with the Oklahoma Housing Finance Agency to determine how to best distribute $32 million of federal funding toward unhoused and housing-insecure Oklahomans. McLeod said through talking with rural and urban homeless liaisons and accounting for the population of youth too young to attend schools or not in school, Oklahoma could easily have more than 120,000 homeless and housing insecure youth today.
“I would ask anyone willing to engage in the conversation this question: If I am wrong, and have inflated this extrapolated calculation even twice over, are we OK with 60,000 homeless children?” McLeod asked.
This number is drastically larger than the about 22,000 homeless students identified in Oklahoma through the McKinney-Vento program during the 2020-2021 school year, the most recent year reported. The report also found 3.2% of all Oklahoma students to be considered homeless, however, McLeod said liaisons estimated the number to actually fall around 10% for their districts.
“Let's say we missed the mark ten times over,” McLeod said. “Would Oklahoma's citizens — the brave, bold, resourceful, and upright of our state — be content that we have 12,000 homeless children? What if I threw on top of that, we know where to find them? We know who they are, and we know where the majority of them and their siblings go to school? The fact is that we do know, and the correlation between this epidemic and our ranking of 49th in education and 46th in overall child-well being is difficult to ignore.”
Oklahoma Watch, at oklahomawatch.org, is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that covers public-policy issues facing the state.