More homeless children need community support

Being homeless doesn't necessarily mean living out of a dirty cardboard box at the edge of a park somewhere.

Sometimes it means sharing a tiny motel room with your family or being crammed into a relatives' home.

It's possible for children to live like this for a long while and nobody knows. It's a family secret.

But eventually, school officials see the signs. Children who are considered homeless often have physical, social and academic problems, and in time the truth comes out. What is unfortunate is that they could have been helped early on if only school officials had been aware of the circumstances.

There is help for many families in these situations, if they ask.

Getting children connected to services that can help them is imperative, and school officials could use some help. The longer these families struggle, the harder it is on the children.

Unfortunately, these kinds of situations appear to be on the rise. According to a report recently released by the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction, more than 950 students in Benton and Franklin counties have been reported as homeless.

That's dozens more than last year and almost triple the number of homeless students from four years ago.

It's possible the number could be higher, as many people are too ashamed to admit they need help.

Perhaps the parents are finding a way to keep their kids fed and clean, so there are no immediate outward signs that anything is wrong unless the child says something or the parents acknowledge they need help.

And help is available. Students in Pasco, for example, automatically qualify for free breakfast and lunch if they are homeless, and the district will transport them to school, even if they've had to move outside that school's attendance area.

Other schools and districts offer programs and services to help keep students in school. Community resources such as My Friends Place, Vista Youth Center and Safe Harbor Support Center also provide assistance.

Homeless teens, especially, need encouragement because they face greater risks of dropping out of school and drug abuse. This age group is typically reluctant to discuss family problems, so they often need someone to reach out to them.

Teachers and school officials are the most likely people to notice students who may be living in a homeless situation, but anyone can be on the lookout for children who may be in need of a little support.

When a family lives in a single motel room night after night, it's possible they aren't just in transition. A few compassionate questions might get them talking, which could lead them to services they may not have known existed.

Parents, too, should speak up if they have concerns about a student in their child's class. There's a difference between being nosy and being genuinely concerned. School officials will know how to handle it if someone sees some signs that might have gone unnoticed by a teacher with an overcrowded room.

Improving the economy would be the best solution to helping homeless families, but in the meantime, there are services that might, at the very least, bring some stability to a child's life. With the increase in homeless children in Benton and Franklin counties, there is a crucial need for everyone to be on the lookout for families that have fallen through the cracks.