By STEFAN MODRICH
Nearly 7,000 children, or 2 percent of all students in Fort Bend County, are affected by or are in some proximity to experiencing homelessness, according to data from the Coalition for the Homeless.
This year, 19 of the nearly 4,000 homeless youths interviewed by the Coalition for the Homeless across the Greater Houston area were unsheltered in Fort Bend County. Fifty-seven were sheltered, meaning they were living in homeless shelters at the time.
Shannan Stavinoha is the executive director of the Parks Youth Ranch in Richmond, the county’s only nonprofit emergency shelter for children ages 7-17.
The organization’s mission, Stavinoha said, is to “serve abused and neglected youth by providing a safe and supportive environment.”
The Parks Youth Ranch is holding its ninth annual Cowboy Up fundraiser, a virtual event from 7-8 p.m. Nov. 14 that will include raffles and silent auctions. Tickets are free and available at pyr.givesmart.com.
Stavinoha said the organization’s goal is to raise $100,000 from the fundraiser.
“We’ve been very fortunate over the past few years to exceed that mark,” Stavinoha said. “So this year if we could make $100,000, I would just be over the moon.”
Those who are interested in sponsorships or volunteering can visit parksyouthranch.org.
The children served by the Parks Youth Ranch, which has a capacity of 28 beds, come from several different types of backgrounds, Stavinoha said.
According to a Coalition for the Homeless report from the 2017-18 school year, 2 percent of Fort Bend ISD’s enrollment (75,275 students at the time of the study) had experienced homelessness and 3 percent of Stafford MSD’s enrollment (3,607 students) had as well.
Through interviews with students, the coalition determined 1,091 FBISD students and 88 SMSD students were in doubled-up or unsuitable housing, meaning the number of occupants exceeded the number that was designated for the type of dwelling or it did not contain electricity, plumbing, or other essential functions, as is sometimes the case in the county’s rural areas.
According to the report, 180 FBISD students and 15 SMSD students were living in a hotel or motel. Many of those students will typically be residing there on a voucher, which Stavinoha said is typically only good for about seven days.
“They’re jumping from hotel to motel, hopefully being able to find another voucher so they can live in Fort Bend County,” Stavinoha said. “It’s a struggle.”
In addition, she said the COVID-19 pandemic has made it more difficult to track down students who are at risk of experiencing homelessness.
Social workers and truancy officers are reporting to the last known address of the student if they are not attending school in person or not signing on for virtual learning, and collecting data for students who may be missing or homeless.
“Our social workers and our community partners who refer kids to us don’t see the kids every day,” Stavinoha said. “So we don’t know which kids are out there who need help. We’re missing them. That is concerning, because we don’t know if those kids can find someone who can help them find shelter. When you’re homeless, how do you shelter in place? And where do you go to get help if those offices are closed and you don’t know where to go?
Another problem Stavinoha and her staff face is the prevalence of underage human trafficking or sex trafficking victims.
“We see youth in our shelter all the time who have a history of exploitation,” Stavinoha said. “I have a youth in the shelter right now who was actually exploited and trafficked by their parents. … We had a youth previously who was trafficked to repay the debt his parents incurred by bringing his parents over the (southern) border (with Mexico). Unfortunately it’s more and more common as families struggle to make ends meet, that struggle is what leads to them being trafficked.”
Experts from the Coalition from the Homeless and others have found that homeless youths are often trauma victims, and the trauma can manifest itself in many ways.
Exposure to many dangers, like substance abuse or depression or post-traumatic stress disorder are factors that can make the homeless youth population more vulnerable to trafficking.
Sourcing food and basic goods like toilet paper for up to 28 children or teenagers was another challenge for Stavinoha and her staff.
“Teenagers eat a lot,” Stavinoha said. “And with grocery stores limiting (quantities of certain items), and thankfully that’s over, I hope — it was a struggle to find food and to make sure we had enough snacks from milk to fresh fruit and snacks, things we want us to have.”
Furthermore, the social and recreational activities that would usually be outlets for the youth at the shelter, as well as programs for job placement or career preparedness have gone by the wayside for the time being.
“The things that we would normally be doing — helping our kids get jobs, making sure they were working on their education, and family or friends or stable housing, those types of things have been put on hold,” Stavinoha said. “Extracurriculars, sports, band, JROTC, what kind of risk will that put the other kids at if they participate in those things? So every family has gone through that, and this family has as well.”