COLUMN: Homeless students a bigger issue than we knew

Sue Catron

Isn’t it funny — not the ha-ha kind — how the brain works hard to make the world more comfortable and pleasant?

Occasionally, I get some new information that just stomps around on assumptions I’ve made and hung onto like a ragged old baby blanket. When faced with reality, there are times I hang my head, thinking of the blinders I’ve been wearing.

For the past three years, I’ve had the opportunity to meet regularly with those interested in impacting homelessness in Tahlequah. Some attending those meetings have been school resource personnel with responsibility for assisting students who are experiencing homelessness. Originally, I was startled to be reminded there are students without stable homes. I know: privilege.

To make that picture more bearable, I have assumed the number needing assistance is low. I’ve assumed the students we’re talking about are those who are “couch surfing” as their family moves from an aunt’s house to grandmother’s house to a friend’s home as time passes and their welcome wears away.

At the State of the Community event last month, our new Tahlequah Public Schools superintendent, Tanya Jones, dropped a number into her update that was startling. I asked for clarification.

TPS’ website says there are currently 3,530 students enrolled for the 2022-23 school year. According to Ms. Jones, last year 222 students from 3 years old through 12th grade met the Oklahoma criteria as homeless. If you don’t do math in your head, that’s just over 6% — pretty close to one out of every 16 students. That’s a whole lot of couch surfing, right?

That’s where the numbers really get painful — or they did for me. Only 139 were doubled up with another family.

Couch surfing is hard on a kid. Not only do they not have a space of their own, but they frequently must change schools when they move from one house to another. It’s hard to learn to read when you go to three different first-grade classrooms.

But what about the other 83 kiddos? Ten lived in a shelter or other transitional housing. Eleven lived in hotels. At least that’s a roof, right? What about the 47 who were “unsheltered,” living in cars, parks, etc.?

Can you imagine how hard it would be to go to school when you not only don’t have a roof but you also don’t have a bed, and you don’t have any way to heat up something to eat? Can you imagine how badly those parents want their children to have an education? The other 15 were younger siblings of others living in one of these conditions.

It would be so much easier to just keep your child out of the school system altogether. That’s what makes these numbers even worse.

How many parents in our community have opted to take the easy road? How many children are experiencing homelessness without the support and care of those working within our schools?

Thank goodness our school system has great people focused on this issue. ... There are way more kids needing way more assistance than you might ever have guessed.

Catron is a former assistant vice president of business and finance for Northeastern State University and the current mayor of Tahlequah.

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