State's student homeless population doubles

For a few hours after school, Ryan Johnson is just like most 16-year-olds. He lounges on the couch with his favorite Xbox game or checks his Facebook page.

But then reality sets in. He decamps from his cousins' house for the Howard County cold-weather shelter. Dinner is a meal with his father and 20 other homeless people. He goes to bed early, on a green plastic mat next to strangers, who also have no other place to go in one of the state's wealthiest counties.

"It has been really hard," said Ryan, a junior at Wilde Lake High School in Columbia. "I look at it like a detention I have to do every day, even though I didn't do anything wrong."

Ryan's experience is becoming increasingly common. The number of homeless students in Maryland has more than doubled in the past five years, rising from 6,721 to 14,117 last school year, according to the Maryland State Department of Education.

The largest increases in homeless populations are notable for where they are occurring: in the suburban rings around cities. Anne Arundel County has seen a 231 percent increase in homeless students since 2005, Baltimore County a 140 percent increase and Howard County a 150 percent increase. The increase in Baltimore City, which still has the largest number of homeless students, was 75 percent.

Upper-middle-class families who once lived in $500,000 houses are telling school officials that they have lost their homes. In one case, school officials said, a family lived in the woods after losing their place. And many are temporarily living with family or friends, moving from house to house.

Nationally, the number of homeless children rose 38 percent from 2007 to 2010, including those too young to attend school. A new report by the National Center on Family Homelessness found that the recession left one in 45 children in the United States homeless.

The recession and the housing crisis led to widespread foreclosures and hit family finances hard. In Maryland, it can be particularly tough to recover as some areas lack affordable housing and the cost of living is higher. According to one study, the income needed for a two-bedroom apartment here is $24.43 per hour, or more than three times the minimum wage.

And the problem isn't abating with the slow economic recovery. Several suburban Baltimore districts reported last week that the number of homeless students is expected to be higher this school year than last.

School often becomes the only constant in a homeless child's life. At one school in Baltimore County, all homeless students are assigned a "buddy," whether it is the principal or the custodian, to check on them once or twice a week.

Student homelessness also poses a challenge to school districts, which must provide transportation from wherever a child is living. Many schools also take on the task of linking homeless families to social services and charities, helping them find coats for their children or a place to spend the night.

"Schools are the most stable place they can be," said Barbara Duffield, policy director for the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth. "The role schools have to play in responding to youth homelessness is really important."

A year ago, Ryan had his own room at his mother's Columbia apartment. Then their $938-a-month rent rose, and his mother had to move because she couldn't afford to stay in Howard County. Ryan's mother could not be reached for comment.

When Ryan's mother moved to a more affordable place in Baltimore City, Ryan opted to stay behind to finish high school in a better school system, said his dad, Ryan Johnson Sr. Ryan and his father moved in with an uncle, but eventually the place began to feel too small for the two families. When the county's cold-weather shelter opened in November, the Johnsons packed their belongings into their car and moved out, expecting the situation to be temporary.

'Nontraditional homeless'

For many, the path to homelessness is unexpected, according to social workers. Carl Love, a homelessness liaison in Baltimore County, said some families lose their places when the landlord of the property they are renting is foreclosed on. Then they may become homeless because of a lack of affordable rental housing in the county, he said, or because their credit rating prevents them from getting another apartment.

And affordable housing in the county is becoming increasingly scarce, he said, pointing out an area where $300,000 houses replaced low-cost housing.

In Anne Arundel County, some people purchased homes they couldn't afford or took on mortgages with interest rates that increase over time, and now are facing foreclosure. Lynne Weise, the homelessness liaison in Anne Arundel County, said she has seen it happen to people who live in $500,000 houses in Broadneck or on the edge of affluent Severna Park.

"I am seeing an increase in the more nontraditional homeless, people who you never could have imagined being homeless," she said.

Stacie Whitaker-Harris, a 36-year-old mother of three with a bachelor's degree, once lived a middle-class life and never expected to lose her Baltimore home, which happened in 2008.