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'It is a big problem': Hundreds of Mesa students experience homelessness

In the 2021-2022 school year, about 1,100 students were homeless in Mesa Public Schools. So far this year, 389 students with unstable housing are getting extra help.

MESA, Ariz. — Arizona’s largest school district has hundreds of students currently experiencing homelessness and a team dedicated to making sure those students get help again this year.

In the 2021-2022 school year, about 1,100 students were homeless in Mesa Public Schools. So far this year, 389 students with unstable housing are getting extra help.

District staff knows there are more students out there knowing there are unique challenges in the post-pandemic era, leaving families experiencing homelessness.

‘We can only do so much’

“It is a big problem,” Pat Estes, Mesa Public Schools’ Director of Federal Grants, said. “And we can only do so much.”

The district, which serves 58,000 students at 82 schools, has to requalify students each year for McKinney-Vento Homelessness services.

Each of those students can get help with before and after school programs, free meals, transportation, and supplies through the program.

A portion of those supplies are in a large storage closet inside Mesa Public School’s Title I office.

The closet is filled with toiletries, backpacks, laundry detergent, and other items for students in the district.

“This is everything that we give parents,” Jane Foley-Graeff says while unzipping one of the stuffed, heavy bags. “One for every student.”

Foley-Graeff is Mesa Public Schools’ McKinney-Vento Homeless Liaison.

The bag holds everything from shampoo, to deodorant, to shaving cream or tampons. An extra bag with the laundry detergent goes home with students too.

A piece of stability

Students experiencing homelessness don’t usually look like the stereotypes, the team says.

“There are a lot of families out there who have been displaced and are in transition and are sleeping in their car and doubling up, and calling shelter after shelter just to be told we’re so sorry there’s not room,” McKay Smith, the McKinney-Vento assistant liaison said.

Meaning as families move around, some of these kids might move schools or not show up at all.

That’s what Foley-Graeff and her team work to avoid by helping keep kids in the school they’re from.

“That's the whole purpose is to leave them at the school that they're at. Because they know the teachers, they know the kids, they know the staff,” Foley-Graeff said. “It's some stability for them.”

Big factors: Evictions, rising rents

It’s stability in times when students face the unpredictable, between the end of the eviction moratorium last year, rising costs, and limited shelter space.

It’s evictions or not being able to renew the rental lease the team says they see as the biggest reasons students are experiencing homelessness right now.

“The rent has increased. So the deposit has increased. So it makes it more difficult for them to find housing that they can actually get into,” Foley-Graeff said.

While the team can help the students and help keep them in their school of origin, they recognize they can’t do everything families need.

“That’s probably the most frustrating thing is that we don’t have all the resources that we need for those families,” Estes said.

Things beyond the district's scope, like more shelter space or even more people to work as bus drivers in school districts to help get kids to school.  

“They call and say, ‘I need housing.’ A lot of times, that’s the first thing that they tell us, ‘I need housing. I don’t have a place to live,'” Foley-Graeff said. “We can refer them to Community Bridges, but even sometimes they have nothing available, or that’s open that they can place them.”

If you or a family you know needs some extra help, a list of McKinney-Vento liaisons for every Arizona school district can be found here.

Families in Mesa Public Schools can apply for McKinney-Vento services here.

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