SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4) – For the entire academic school year, Salt Lake City School District has granted ABC4 unprecedented access to its classrooms as many navigate the pandemic.
The Salt Lake City Classroom Chronicles is turning its lens on student homelessness. Officials say there are 524 unsheltered students in the district.
“So they are not necessarily living out on the streets. They are in hotels/motels out on North Temple. They are in transitional housing, and then some of them yeah they are in encampments or in homeless shelters,” says Mary W. Jackson Elementary Principal Tracy Sjostrom.
The challenges are great for a child experiencing homelessness. Aside from learning about the ABCs and 123s, a student with no place to call home must also focus on basic necessities like survival, food, and shelter.
Fighting for survival is traumatic and many students who are homeless may also battle learning or behavioral difficulties, or suffer from depression, anxiety, and low-self esteem.
“It’s sad, definitely, they had a lot of trauma,” says Sjostrom.
The trauma impacts about 10 percent of the students considered homeless at Mary W. Jackson Elementary. Many of the students struggle with poor attendance due to their predicament. To counter this issue the faculty and staff at the school make follow-up visits with the student and their family. They also encourage students to come to school with special incentive-based contracts.
“We have this adorable student and we set up behavioral incentives so that if he comes to school for five days then he gets this little cute stuffed teddy bear. He showed it to me yesterday and it did work,” says Principal Sjostrom.
She says it takes these small acts of kindness through a trauma-informed lens to help the students adding, “Most of our homeless kids, they are struggling.”
The pandemic and mental health is compounding the issues.
“Just in the classroom, building those relationships with kids is making all the difference. We want to create a safe space and welcoming space for our students,” she says.
Mary W. Jackson takes a three-tier approach to help their students.
Tier 1 deals with emotional and social learning.
If there is still an issue, the child then moves to tier two for counseling, and students work within small groups to achieve independent goals.
In the last tier, a social worker and outside resources are provided.
“We recognize that they are in unique situations, so we try to get to know each individual, and really determine the root cause of their issues and help address them here in the building or get them the outside resources,” Principal Sjostrom says.
“I would say we are doing all we can, but we can do a lot more.”
One root cause for many homeless students in the Salt Lake City School District is food insecurity.
The Utah Food Bank has partnered with the district to help shore up this need for food.
Each week the organization drops off food to schools like Mary W. Jackson Elementary to help feed the unsheltered students.
The needs are many and the Salt Lake Education Foundation is taking monetary donations to help provide students and families with the basic necessities.
But as Sjostrom tells ABC4, you can donate coats, socks, and sweaters to schools like hers.
“It is pretty sad. Hopefully, they will be sheltered, and know that they are loved and cared for here at school,” she says.
On Thursday, Governor Spencer Cox agreed with the principal saying, “Getting them sheltered is the big thing.”
The governor says his administration has helped roughly 200 families get into homes.
“Our focus is on preventing homelessness from starting in the first place, especially with families, and then getting people sheltered as quickly as we can,” he says. “Sometimes we don’t even know that a family is living in their vehicle or in a van somewhere. That they don’t have housing, and the schools are the place where they can find those things out and notify us.”
The governor says his office has resources that unsheltered families and students can use once school districts connect all of the parties.
He says this is because, “Our first priority is always, always families with children who are unsheltered.”