This is the last of four articles about homeless students in Jefferson County. Past stories in the series “No place to go” focused on the Jefferson, Whitewater and Fort Atkinson school districts.
Homelessness in Jefferson County wears a familiar face. It’s not the one most people think of — the scraggly face of an older man, surrounded by worn bags, sleeping under a bush — although that’s not unheard of either.
Rather, the face of homelessness in Jefferson County could be that of the child sitting next to yours in school, undistinguishable from his or her peers, whose family is doubling up with relatives after losing their home.
It could be the young man or woman who is chronically underemployed and doesn’t make enough money for an apartment, however small, and thus gets by via “couch-surfing” at friends’ homes.
And it could be the “unaccompanied youth,” typically someone in his or her later teens, who was either kicked out of or left home and is trying to make it on his or her own.
Jude Hartwick, at-risk teacher since 1999 with Fort Atkinson’s Crossroads Alternative School, said he has worked with five or six students recently who have been living out of their cars, couch-surfing, even sleeping beneath an underpass.
Hartwick, who also is president of the Homeless Coalition of Fort Atkinson, a new group that is working on being certified as a nonprofit organization, said his focus as an at-risk teacher is to help these students achieve success so they can complete high school and find their place as contributing members of the community.
Similarly, Hartwick said he sees homeless individuals as being “at-risk” adults. Being homeless puts them at higher risk for poor health outcomes and numerous other dangers.
He himself became more involved with the issue of homelessness as a whole during a school year in which more than half of his students technically were classified as homeless, meaning they did have a permanent nighttime residence of their own during at least a portion of the school year.
“I think most people understand homelessness is a problem,” Hartwick said. “I don’t think most people know how common it is.
“It’s a tough issue for our community,” he added. “Mental illness can play a role, as can (addiction).”
He noted that six of his former students have died as a result of opioid addiction. When you’re in the throes of an addiction like that, it’s difficult for school, a job, or even basic housing needs to compete, he said.
Hartwick said that among the students he works with, who are struggling to finish school, the lack of a stable, fixed address can be a factor in their academic difficulties.
A couple of years ago, about half of his students were living on their own, in limited straits.
It’s difficult for a teen living in that situation to focus on finishing school. Some of the students he has known who have been homeless do not graduate, Hartwick said, which puts them on a dangerous path.
It also can be difficult to help people who are homeless, as they might be resistant to calling attention to themselves for various reasons. It’s embarrassing. They might be involved in something, like drugs, that they don’t want to come to light. And in some cases, prior trauma and/or mental health conditions make them reluctant to trust others, Hartwick explained.
Working with young people can be even more challenging, as by law, any type of assistance a child might receive has to go through the parents, and for various reasons, the parent might not be willing, or able, to help.
While official numbers of homeless youth (as defined by the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction) in Fort Atkinson remain fairly low compared to some area communities, Hartwick said he personally has seen a big increase in the past few years in students with whom he has dealt who qualify as homeless.
“I think it’s the economy, personally,” Hartwick said. “There’s a big inequity of pay in today’s economy.
That especially is hard on people who already are living on the edge, he said.
Meanwhile, Hartwick said he has seen an increase in unaccompanied youth — teens living on their own, whether driven by economics, emotional factors or some other reason.
Hartwick said the local coalition that’s trying to address homelessness is working on a establishing a shelter for homeless youths in the area. But again, the rule of parental consent comes into play even when the child essentially is unsupported by the parent(s).
It is a thorny issue, and one of several being addressed by the Homeless Coalition. But it’s important to recognize that there is a need in the local community, Hartwick said, in order to find ways to improve the situation.
Anyone interested in contributing to the discussion and joining in the effort is welcome to join the group for its monthly meetings, held at 6:30 p.m. on the fourth Tuesday of each month at the First United Methodist Church in Fort Atkinson.