Of the nearly 15,000 students at Waco Independent School District last year, nearly 10 percent were estimated to be homeless. For students this means they lack a fixed place to spend the night. But this fall, a new non-profit aims to help those students.
As Cheryl Pooler and Rosemary Townsend walk through the Cove -- a 2,600 square foot space outfitted with the resources that homeless students are looking for in their day-to-day life -- Pooler turns a corner and waves me through a room in the back corner.
"And this is where the real magic is," Pooler says. "So it's a laundry room, but as you can see there's a shower here and a handicap accessible bathroom here."
Next month the Cove will open to an inaugural cohort of 90 students from Waco, University, and Brazos Credit Recovery High Schools. These Waco independent school district students have been identified as homeless and unaccompanied. This means the students are living with people that don’t have legal guardianship or custody over them.
Pooler – who is also the homeless liaison for Waco ISD – says The Cove falls into the City’s overall efforts to alleviate homelessness.
“The kinds of problems were seeing is just a lack of resources, which when you say you’re going to end homelessness that doesn’t mean nobody every becomes homeless," Pooler said. "What it means is a community has acquired enough resources that needs can be met as they arise – and we’re not there yet.”
In the last school year, there was an estimated 1,100 Waco ISD students who were homeless. That number is nearly double the homeless student population in 2012. Across all Texas schools last year that number was more than 113,000, nearly 2 percent of the state’s student population.
The majority of homeless youth, according to the National Center for Homeless Education, resort to "doubling-up" as a means of overnight shelter. Roughly 80% of all homeless Texas youth did just that in the 2013-2014 school year.
“There’s a lot of high mobility in these kids, as they’re bouncing around they can fall behind in school. And they’re not resting well. Often times it’s poverty piling on top of poverty, when it’s the doubling-up piece.”
But Pooler says, for a lot of the families she's interacted with, that's not an option.
“I have a lot of families living in hotels, not great hotels either, they’re not-so pretty. But that’s what they can afford and that’s where they are. So we send a school bus to the hotel to send them to their school of origin every day. And sometimes I have families in their cars, or literally kids, we’ve had kids, sleeping on the street or behind the bus barn.
"It’s very hard to imagine," Pooler said. "But this is really, truly happening in Waco every single day.”
To figure out how many homeless students are in a school's student body, districts use a federal formula.
You take the total enrollment for any school in any district, factor out the percentage of students that receive free and reduced lunch, and 10 percent of that number is how you predict the homeless population for any given school in any given district.
These students, as defined under the McKinney-Vento Act, “lack a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence.” But for Destiny Fernandez, being a homeless youth was more than that.
“I felt at the time, when everything else was in chaos and everything was kind of unstable," Fernandez said. "I was really looking for stability, a community of people that would feel like home.”
Fernandez found that stability in school organizations like soccer and cheerleading. But the whole time, she says she was looking for help to navigate the tribulations she was going through.
“Because when a traumatic experience happens and you experience homelessness you kind of don’t know where to go, who to talk to, who to ask questions," Fernandez said. "Because there’s almost a fear of you’re not going to know how your family is going to be perceived, if you’re going to be taken away – just what’s going to happen.”
Fernandez now sits on the Cove’s board as a student advocate, offering direction and input into the needs of homeless youth. But apart from meals and a place to do laundry, the non-profit aims to provide mentorship and help students set specific goals, says Rosemary Townsend, the fundraising chair and co-found of the cove. One of those goals, she says, is ensuring students graduating. Research has shown that 75 percent of homeless youth will drop out of school.
“So I’m looking at it very holistically," Townsend said. "What are their specific needs in terms of them being healthy but also what are their dreams, what are those enrichments that we can partner with different folks in our community to get them to be?”
This August, each of the 90 students that walk through the Cove’s doors will be first asked where they are staying for the night. And if they’re not sure – staff and case managers will work to figure it out.
Fernandez says that’s the support homeless youth need, and that when the non-profit's doors are finally opened, "it’s going to feel like a second chance, it’s going to feel like someone’s just given you a home.”
The Cove estimates it costs roughly 175,000 dollars each year to operate. You can find out more about the cove, how to volunteer or how to donate by visiting their website.