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Offering hope to throwaway kids
Area schools struggle to deal with a growing number of teens living on their own, with neither parents nor homes

 Wilson Umanzor, 19, walks to work at a restaurant in Harrison Crossing from the room he rents near Chancellor High School in Spotsylvania.
PETER CIHELKA/THE FREE LANCE-STAR
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Date published: 3/20/2011

BY AMY FLOWERS UMBLE

The shoes have seen better days. Faded. Splotched with oil and paint stains. Coming apart at the seams.

But Wilson Umanzor isn't parting with the ratty canvas sneakers any time soon. A fastidious dresser, Wilson wears the shoes only when he treks through mud and dirt on his way to his job at a fast-food place.

During rough times, this pair of Vans inspires the teen to keep going.

"I keep them to remind me I don't want to wear them again, and I don't want to go through what I went through in them again," said the 19-year-old Spotsylvania County resident.

Wilson wore those sneakers while living under a bridge in Houston. Two years later, he walks an hour each way to and from work, spends nearly all of his paycheck on rent and has little time for fun.

Wilson and nearly 900 youths in Virginia's school systems get by with little or no support from parents. Lacking guardians, they are considered homeless by federal definitions.

In Spotsylvania, 101 teens fall into this category. And the numbers keep rising.

The phenomenon isn't new. Every recent generation has had couch-surfers--kids from troubled families bunking with friends. And there have always been runaways.

But in recent years, schools have experienced dramatic spikes in the numbers of "unaccompanied homeless youths." They're sometimes called throwaway kids, because many leave home after their parents kick them out for getting into trouble, coming out of closet or running with the wrong crowd.

These days, homeless advocates say they're seeing a more heartbreaking trend: parents cutting ties with their kids because they can no longer afford them.

'FLYING UNDER THE RADAR'

These youths often try to juggle school, work and life on their own while classmates worry about college essays, prom and class rings.

And often the unaccompanied youths get little help. Worried about going into foster care or being teased, the teens usually keep mum about their situations.

"They're flying under the radar, and it's just sad," said Michelle Patton, a social worker for Spotsylvania County schools.

Patton works with the county's "McKinney Vento" students--those meeting the U.S. Department of Education's definitions of homelessness. This includes teens like Wilson.


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862

Unaccompanied homeless youths reported in Virginia in 2010

101

Unaccompanied homeless youths in Spotsylvania County schools

387

Homeless youths in Spotsylvania County schools

297

Homeless youths in Stafford County schools

956,914

Total number of homeless students reported in U.S. schools in 2009

12,768

Total number of homeless students reported in Virginia schools in 2009

52,950

Unaccompanied homeless youths in U.S. schools in 2009

23 percent

Increase in unaccompanied youths between 2008 and 2009

Federal definitions of homelessness vary. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development considers someone homeless if he has no fixed, regular home. This includes people in shelters or on the streets.

The U.S. Department of Education considers someone homeless if he lives in a motel, a shelter or on the streets. The DOE also considers people homeless if they live doubled up because they can't afford a home.

The DOE defines unaccompanied homeless youths as those who lack safe, stable housing and are not in the care of a parent or guardian. They often live in cars, motels, doubled up, on the streets or in shelters.

High school is a time for making long-lasting memories: proms, graduations, class rings, senior trips. But for most unaccompanied homeless youths, these traditions are out of reach. Social workers are trying to help with some of the costs. To that end, Stafford has a fund to pay inexpensive incidental costs that arise. And Spotsylvania hopes to have donors willing to help with those students.

To help, contact Spotsylvania County schools' social work department at 540/840-0950 or Stafford's at 540/899-6213.

This is the first of two stories on how area schools deal with the rising number of homeless students.

TOMORROW: A look at the social workers who help students and homeless families.