(Photo by John Cook) Angila Heinitz loads school supplies in a backpack at the Tuscola Intermediate School District office. Homeless students from Tuscola and Huron counties will receive free backpacks, school supplies, snacks and books in October.

Backpack giveaway spotlights problem: homeless students in Michigan Thumb region

(Photo by John Cook) Angila Heinitz loads school supplies in a backpack at the Tuscola Intermediate School District office. Homeless students from Tuscola and Huron counties will receive free backpacks, school supplies, snacks and books in October.
(Photo by John Cook) Angila Heinitz loads school supplies in a backpack at the Tuscola Intermediate School District office. Homeless students from Tuscola and Huron counties will receive free backpacks, school supplies, snacks and books in October.

Angila Heinitz figures it’s great the Feed the Children organization is donating 1,000 backpacks – filled with school supplies, snacks and age-appropriate reading books – to homeless students in Tuscola and Huron counties.

The area may not have received such a donation in the past from the nonprofit organization, though area residents may not know the extent of homelessness among students, either, said Heinitz, homeless student education grant coordinator at the Tuscola Intermediate School District in Caro.

“Every year in Tuscola and Huron counties, we identify over 450 students that are homeless,” Heinitz said. “When I say that, people say ‘We don’t have homeless students in our communities.’ Yes, we do.”

Together the two counties count about 520 students defined as homeless under a federal definition that includes students living in homes other than their own, along with the more classic example of students living on the street. That total includes students from kindergarten through 12th grade, and – in the case of some students  — up to age 21.

“We have a lot of families where mom and dad are both working two or three jobs, and they still can’t afford to live in their own household  — they have to be doubled up with another family,” Heinitz said. “You know, working in Tuscola County, there are some struggling folks there, and in Huron County as well.”

Each school district in Tuscola and Huron counties has a liaison for homeless students, and those liaisons come to the Tuscola Intermediate School District on Oct. 6 to pick up the free backpacks filled with school supplies, reading books and snacks. The liaisons take the backpacks to their school districts for confidential distribution.

Anyone wanting to ensure that a homeless student receives one of the backpacks may contact the liaison for homeless students in his respective school district. Readers also may call Heinitz at 989-673-2144, ext. 30426.

The donation from Feed the Children, a nonprofit organization hoping to end childhood hunger, is “a huge deal” because it supplements an existing program that provides backpacks to area homeless children.

“The intermediate school district has a backpack program where, every week, the schools get so many backpacks that get sent home on the weekends with homeless students,” Heinitz said. “Those backpacks are filled with nonperishable food items to get them through the weekend.IMG_3196

“But that program is costly and we use grant funds to operate that backpack program, and our schools always have bigger needs than what we can give them.”

No homeless shelter exists in Tuscola County, though Heinitz said “one or two” homeless shelters exist in Huron County.

“I’d like people to be aware that this is an issue in Tuscola County,” Heinitz said.

The donation from Feed the Children comes at a time when revenue has been reduced for a federal grant program providing assistance to homeless students.

“This federal grant, when it started for us (in 2011), was a $70,000 grant, but now it’s down to $30,000,” Heinitz said. Grant funds help students included meeting the federal definition of “homeless.”

“We do have kids that are living in tents, or living in campgrounds or tents with their families,” Heinitz said.

“There are many that are just couch-surfing: These kids just stay with whoever will take them in for a night or two, or they stay with friends here and there. Kids who are doubled-up with other families are part of the definition of ‘homeless.’

“In our community, we have a lot of situations where there are two or three families living in one household.”

Some students live at the homes of friends.

“We call those homeless students ‘unaccompanied youth,’ and they’re unaccompanied because they’re not living with a parent or a guardian,” Heinitz said. “A lot of our students that are considered homeless do fall in that category.”

An unaccompanied youth also could include “a 17-year-old who is living with somebody, or who might have left home because he was being abused, or because he gets in physical fights with dad,” Heinitz said.

In addition, children placed into foster care “are automatically  — in the first six months that they’re placed into a foster care home  — considered homeless by the definition of this law.”

Federal grant money for the homeless-student program at schools in Tuscola and Huron counties “is very little, so it doesn’t cover the need that our schools have for homeless students,” Heinitz said.

“There are some school districts that – instead of getting (items for) 24 backpacks every week – could really use 50.”

The need may have increased since grant funds began arriving in 2011, though.

“We actually identify a lot more homeless kids now than we did then, because we know more about how to identify them and what the definition is  — it’s a broad definition,” Heinitz said. “It’s not just your kids sleeping out of the street. It’s your doubled-up families, it’s your unaccompanied youth kind of couch-surfing, and it’s your foster-care students.”

Tom Gilchrist is a reporter for The Advertiser and can be reached at gilchrist@tcadvertiser.com

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