It’s a figure that almost always surprises people who work outside of the school district; more than 700 DMPS students are experiencing homelessness right now. By comparison, that’s more students than are enrolled in the majority of Iowa’s school districts and more than the population of 560 Iowa towns. It’s big, and families need our help.
DMPS Homeless Liaison Lyn Wilson and SUCCESS case manager Lisa Beving joined us recently for an episode of The Become Here Project: A Des Moines Public Schools Podcast to talk about Homeless Awareness Week Nov. 13-17 and shine a light on the needs of hundreds of Des Moines families.
“As a bigger city, we have lots of families that come to us in Des Moines,” Wilson said. “The services are much more robust here than in a rural area, so this is where families know they can get what they need to keep going.”
Homelessness has a lot of different looks. Some families are doubled up living with somebody because they can’t afford housing or have been evicted, others are in shelters, hotels, or motels, some are living in their cars. Sometimes, families know they can reach out to their school for help, other times it is teachers who identify a student who may be in distress.
“Teachers are the first line of defense when it comes to homelessness,” Wilson said. “If a child comes to school very hungry, they’re not clean, or very tired, those are signs something might be wrong.”
Then comes the delicate conversation with the family led confidentially by the school’s homeless liaison.
“We are trained and experienced and can have some of those conversations that may be uncomfortable for families,” said Beving, the liaison at Brubaker Elementary. “We want to be sure families have access to someone who is caring and going to treat them in a respectful manner to help them get the resources they need.”
Once identified, DMPS has a robust system of supports and community partners available to assist families as they work through a difficult time. If families are referred in time, there are community organizations that could help them keep their home.
“We’ve been able to fine tune the system that identifies families, gets them an assessment to see what their needs are, and then the buildings jump into action, and we work as a team to meet those needs,” Wilson said.
The offerings for students and families experiencing homelessness include transportation so students can remain at their current school, a food pantry in almost every DMPS school building, clothing vouchers, school supplies, and even items students need to participate in extracurricular activities. The needs vary from family to family.
“I don’t think I’ve seen a single case that’s the same,” Wilson said. “The needs have always been different. Parent response is always different. We need to meet families where they are at because they’re in a crisis situation and the trauma some of the families carry with them makes it hard to trust and hard to depend on people that you don’t know.”
The goal is to get families the supports they need to move through a difficult time, while keeping the school day as normal as possible for students.
“We want the student’s school day to be a consistent part that they can count on,” Beving said, “while the grownups handle the big stuff.”
While DMPS and community partners help with the larger needs including medical and dental care, individuals who feel compelled to help can fill in some of the gaps. hygiene supplies like shampoo, toothpaste, feminine hygiene products, and diapers are always in short supply. As are gas gift cards and mechanic services for families who still have a vehicle. If you would like to help support DMPS families facing homelessness, donations can go to your neighborhood DMPS school, or the Kurtz Opportunity Center at 1000 Porter Avenue in Des Moines.
“People are going through so much we don’t know about,” said Beving. “It’s important to give everyone a little bit a grace in their time of need and keep supporting and loving people without judgement.”
For more homeless statistics to be aware of during DMPS Homeless Awareness Week, click here.