Like most single moms, Nikita Nesbitt wakes up every weekday before sunrise to get her son, Daniel, ready for school.
Daniel is just a second grader, but already he has attended three different schools. He and his mother have been bounced around back and forth between four homes.
“What did we do to end up here?” the 7-year-old once asked.
Daniel is one of over 6,000 Miami-Dade County students who has been identified as homeless under the federal guidelines of the McKinney-Veto Homelessness Assistance Act. These students are temporarily doubled up with others or staying in hotels, motels, shelters, transitional housing and unsheltered locations.
On Monday, Miami-Dade Public Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho joined housing researchers to discuss homelessness among local public school children at Camillus House.
“That should be a shame of our community but it cannot be the shame that they carry themselves,” said Carvalho. “So it’s on us to use the very best of research, the very of best of practices for the goodwill of our community both locally and nationally.”
This number in Miami-Dade has more than doubled over the last decade, according to researchers at the University of Florida’s Shimberg Center for Housing Studies and homeless advocacy group, Miami Homes for All Inc.
Outside of the alternative schools, Phyllis Wheatley Elementary School and James H. Bright Elementary, J.W. Johnson Elementary and Dr. Henry W. Mack/West Little River K-8 Center had the highest population of homeless students with over 29 percent, 12 percent and 11 percent respectively.
While, African-Americans account for 42 percent of the national homeless population, according to a 2014 report by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty.
Miami-Dade has the second highest number of homeless students in the Florida metropolitan areas for 2015 to 2016 school year. About 73 percent of students are double residing, 18 percent are living in a shelter or transitional housing, according to the report, Homelessness and Education in Florida: Impacts on Children and Youth.
Nesbitt and Daniel found themselves going from house to house following the death of her grandmother in 2011. After being put out of a friend’s home in Overtown 10 months ago, Nesbitt and her son moved into the Lotus House, a shelter for homeless women and children.
“I would’ve never thought about living in a shelter, but I have a son who depends on me,” said Nesbitt. “And I have to do better, and the Lotus house helps me so much.”
The Lotus House doesn’t only provide Nesbitt with housing, but they also offer counseling for the family, school clothes, and supplies for Daniel, clothes and job training opportunities for Nesbitt.
But not every homeless student has access to the assistance or support.
According to the report, 3 percent are unsheltered, nearly 5 percent live in hotels or motels and 6 percent are awaiting foster care. In addition, many cases of homelessness may not be accounted for since some homeless children may be hard to identify.
In Florida, homeless students make up about 2 percent of the total student population in each grade, however, identification rates are higher among young children. Rates are highest among kindergartners because it is the entry level period for most students and when schools tend to verify home addresses, the report says.
School liaisons also stated that younger children tend to be more uncensored and oblivious to the stigma of poverty. A stigma that some liaisons said makes identification the most difficult.
“The sensitivity issue is a big one, and I cannot emphasize that enough,” said Debra Albo-Steiger, program manager of Project UP-START, Miami-Dade County Public Schools’ homeless education initiative. “It’s really about making people feel comfortable and that is very challenging.”
Project UP-START offers immediate enrollment to homeless students, transportation to allow students to stay in schools of origin and also provide financial assistance for graduation, field trips and senior events.
Every month Albo-Steiger gives dozens of M-DCPS liaisons and educators sensitivity training, as a result, the school district has developed a sensitivity curriculum — the only one in the country. Project UP-START also changes the wording on forms and rely on school faculty and staff for referrals.
“So, they know and can say, ‘Oh I heard about this program,’ not saying you’re homeless, but ‘I think you would qualify for this,’” said Albo-Steiger.
Florida International University hospitality student, Price Destinobles said he didn’t realize he was homeless in high school until he told his U.S. Government teacher about his situation during his senior year at North Miami Senior High School.
Destinobles lost contact with his father when he was 6, and his mother was incarcerated the summer before he started high school, leaving him and his 5 older siblings to fend for themselves. Price ended up living with his aunt, but he never felt at home, he said.
“The house was never clean, there were roaches and rats in the house,” said Destinobles. “I didn’t have anyone taking care of me. I had to provide for myself.”
After being referred to Project UP-START by his teacher, Destinobles was identified as an unaccompanied youth, based on the fact that he was being financially supported solely by child support from his father.
Project UP-START helped Destinobles get school supplies, school clothes and paid for his senior year activities, but he wished that he had spoken out sooner. Before his mom was incarcerated, his family moved cross county and city numerous times. During his three years in middle school, he attended four different schools.
“Since my living conditions were the way they were, it gave me motivation to be at school and get involved in school,” said Destinoles, who played four sports in high school.
Researchers reported that homeless students lag behind their peers in test scores, higher in absenteeism and faced more disciplinary action. Homeless students missed 4-6 more days of school than their peers. They scored 10 to 20 percent lower on Florida State Assessment tests and were suspended up to 10 percent more than other students.
However, Destinoles said, he was fortunate to stay out of trouble. Wanting to be away from home helped him focus on his studies; he graduated from NMSHS with a 3.5 G.P.A.
Nesbitt also said that since Daniel has been at a charter school, his grades have improved, and she makes sure that he always attends school.
There are also psychology effects from being homeless, said Amanda Jensen-Doss, professor and director of the child psychology division at the University of Miami.
Homelessness is tied to poverty, which can often lead to social issues like low self-esteem, anxiety and depression. Homeless children are more likely to be exposed to violence and trauma which can progress into post-traumatic stress and juvenile delinquency, said Jensen-Doss.
“Parents are also under a lot of stress that can interfere with the way they parent,” said Jensen-Doss. “These students also tend to attend under-resourced schools, so there is a kind of a cycle where their special needs are not met, and they under perform.”
Florida’s affordable housing gap is the driving factor for the increase in student homelessness, UF housing expert Anne Ray said.
There is a shortage of housing for extremely-low income families—defined as families whose incomes do not exceed the higher of area median income. Most of these households spend more than half of their income on housing costs leaving them susceptible to homelessness, the researchers said.
Co-authors of the report, leaders of Miami Homes For All, an organization that formed a community collective, “Helping Our Miami-Dade Youth” with nearly 80 other organizations to prevent and end homelessness, said there have to be some legislative improvements in order to combat homelessness.
Executive director, Barbara Ibarra said that federal funding needs to be fueled into increasing the Housing Choice Voucher program, preserve project-based housing, issue tax incentives and increasing funding programs for housing.
Nesbitt is currently on a waiting list for a housing program and in the process of obtaining her GED. She has bright hopes for her family’s future.
She hopes to move Daniel into a permanent home soon and hopes that he stays on track with his grades and grows up to seek success.
“Some days he feels happy, sometimes he feels sad,” said Nesbitt. “But he puts on a happy face so that he can be good.”