By Ellen Fike, Cowboy State Daily
The number of Wyoming public school students reporting they are homeless has increased by hundreds in recent years, data provided by the Wyoming Department of Education showed.
Since the 2012-2013 school year, the state has seen a steady increase in the number of its homeless students, rising from a low of 1,022 homeless students at that time to a peak of 1,908 during the 2016-2017 school year and 1,651 in the last school year.
The WDE defines homeless children as “individuals who lack a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence.” This can include children whose families are sharing a home with others due a loss of housing, economic hardships or other reasons; living in motels/hotels or campgrounds due to a lack of adequate living conditions, or are living in cars, emergency shelters or similar settings.
During the most recent school year, 2020-2021, the number of homeless students in dropped to 1,651, which WDE Communications Director Linda Finnerty said may be attributed to virtual schooling during the pandemic.
“It was harder for districts to identify homeless students because they were not attending school in person,” Finnerty told Cowboy State Daily.
A recent Casper Star-Tribune article reported that Natrona County School District No. 1 saw a significant increase in homeless students at the beginning of the current school year, 90, but Finnerty said the WDE doesn’t collect statewide data on homeless students until the end of the school year, not the beginning.
While Laramie County had the highest number of homeless students at the end of the school year in May, Campbell County has been one of the counties with the highest number of homeless students over the last decade, hitting a peak of 413 homeless students during the 2018-2019 school year.
Laramie County School District No. 1 spokeswoman Mary Quast did not immediately respond to a request for comment from Cowboy State Daily on Thursday.
According to the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, more than 1,700 students experienced homelessness in Wyoming during the 2018-19 school year. Of that number, 53 students were unsheltered, 377 were in shelters, 128 were in hotels/motels and 1,206 were “doubled up,” meaning multiple families were residing in one household together.
Interagency numbers showed Wyoming had the third-lowest number of homeless students in the nation, beaten out by Rhode Island (1,475 as the 2018-19 school year) and Vermont (1,008 during the same school year).
“Students come together in our classrooms from all backgrounds and circumstances. It’s a sad reality that some Wyoming students don’t have their basic needs met—they suffer from homelessness, food insecurity, and volatility, and uncertainty around safety, health, and wellbeing,” National Education Association director Dirk Andrews told Cowboy State Daily on Wednesday. “Public schools serve as a haven for these students. Through school, students are educated, fed, and put in touch with the services and professionals they need to address the barriers to success they may be facing in their lives.
“It’s unacceptable that any student is homeless,” Andrews continued. “But I am proud that our public schools provide more than education; they provide trained professionals to identify issues in students’ lives, they provide safety and security, they provide food, they provide contacts for assistance programs and other resources. They provide a path forward to a better future. Wyoming public schools give these students hope.”