By AMELIA FERRELL KNISELY
CHARLESTON — U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin took the plight of West Virginia’s 10,000 homeless students to the country’s top education official this week, asking for federal attention on the state’s issue.
Manchin called the number of homeless students — nearly 1 in every 25 students — “absolutely unacceptable.”
He spoke with Education Secretary Betsy DeVos on Sept. 17 for 30 minutes via phone in what he called “a very productive conversation” on the state’s rising number of students recorded as homeless under the federal government’s definition.
“I invited her to come to West Virginia, and she said she’ll come and just do a complete review of what’s going on in rural West Virginia,” Manchin, D-W.Va., said.
The visit, which has not been scheduled, is being planned for “as soon as possible.”
Manchin admitted that he first learned the state had 10,522 homeless students during the 2018-19 school year after the Charleston Gazette-Mail reported on the issue.
The West Virginia Department of Education records the number of homeless students under the federal definition, known as McKinney-Vento, that defines homeless students as those who “lack a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence,” and includes students living in shelters, motels and cars.
The definition also includes students doubled up with family and friends; the majority of the state’s homeless students — 87% — are doubled up because of economic hardship. State education employees have described these students as “couch surfing” between homes and sometimes not knowing where they’ll sleep from night to night.
Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, in August downplayed the state’s number of homeless students by pushing back against the federal definition’s inclusion of doubled-up students, which he said led to obscuring the reality of the situation.
The state is required to count homeless students under the federal definition. It does not include the state’s more than 7,000 children in foster care per a federal definition change in 2015.
State education officials and Manchin noted the number of homeless students is likely much higher than reported by counties due to the difficulty of accurately counting students who are doubled up.
Manchin said the state education department did not share the number of homeless students with him or his wife, Gayle Manchin, during his five-year tenure as West Virginia governor from 2005 to 2010. Gayle Manchin served as the West Virginia Secretary of Education and the Arts from 2017 until March 2018.
The West Virginia Department of Education reported 9,025 homeless students in 2017.
“The Department of Education should have shared this information. This wasn’t talked about,” he said.The number jumped 17% since 2017, and homeless students in 2019 accounted for nearly 4% of all students enrolled this past school year in kindergarten through 12th grade in public schools.
Manchin’s phone call with DeVos followed a letter he wrote the education secretary Sept. 6, in which he questioned what financial resources the federal education department could provide to West Virginia for its homeless students programs.
Not every county in the state is able to fund a full-time homeless liaison, who is tasked with recording homeless students and connecting them with resources like clothing and tutoring services.
“These folks are already stretched thin on the front lines and need additional help from you and your team to solve this problem,” Manchin wrote.
Last year, West Virginia received $586,000 in federal grants for homeless students, according to Rebecca Derenge, the state’s coordinator for homeless students.
Congress provided $2.64 million this year for McKinney-Vento programs across the country.
Nationally, there are 1.3 million homeless students under the federal definition of homelessness, according to U.S. Department of Education data.
Following his call with DeVos, Manchin released a statement that, in part, said, “As I work on real solutions for West Virginia’s children, I will continue collaborating with the Trump administration to bring about meaningful results.”
The statement came the same week as President Donald Trump said a “homelessness problem” in San Francisco was causing environmental damage, The New York Times reports.
Trump pointed to the waste in storm sewers and needles ending up in the ocean as the cause of environmental damage.
San Francisco’s mayor, London Breed, pushed back against Trump’s claim, saying that the city’s sewer system prevents debris from flowing into the ocean.
Amelia Ferrell Knisely is a corps member with Report for America, an initiative of The GroundTruth Project. Reach her at email@example.com, 304-348-4886 or follow @ameliaknisely on Twitter.