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Syracuse has hundreds of homeless students; These are the people helping them

The state Department of Education says 986 students in the Syracuse School District are identified as homeless or temporarily housed. That number is down from 2,540 last year, which was the most among upstate NY school districts.

When students get off the bus at school, some may have forgotten their homework or need a pencil. Others need something more basic.

The New York State Department of Education says 986 students in the Syracuse School District are identified as homeless or temporarily housed. That number is down from 2,540 last year, which was the most among upstate New York school districts.

For those students at Franklin Elementary School in Syracuse, there is some help. Kim Vargas, a social worker at Franklin, and Erica Gosh, are on the front lines with students who need extra support.

"[We're] meeting the basic needs of the child so they can feel safe and be successful here at school and they don't have to tell anyone they don't have any clothes or they don't have any socks or whatever it may be," Vargas said.

All of those kids are known to district administrator Deb Montroy, whose job is to get them enrolled in school as soon as possible.

"Our job is to provide a warm and safe environment so that when they come in they feel comfortable enough to tell their story, or at least part of their story so we can hook them up with services," Montroy said.

Under the federal McKinney-Vento Act of 1987, districts need to help kids who lack a regular, fixed and adequate nighttime residence. A majority of the students receiving help in Syracuse don't fit the typical definition of homeless.

"About 80 percent of our students are what's called doubled-up or couch surfing," Montroy said.

Upon entering the district, the students and their families are given a welcome packet with information and school supplies. The next challenge is getting the kids to class.

"The schools work really hard to make sure the transportation is covered as they transition from one temporary house to another to make sure they can still get to school daily," Vargas said.

When the school day ends, some kids seek outside help from the community.

"The district does provide transportation. Centro one-way passes for the students who are staying at the Barnabas House or the Booth house," Montroy said.

The Salvation Army's Booth House is the first runaway and homeless youth shelter in the state. According to House Director Kevin Walton, each year up to 300 kids between ages 12 to 17 walk through the door.

"Someone could knock at the door, a teacher could call on behalf of a kid, a kid could call on behalf of themselves," Walton said.

Walton said the average stay at Booth House is about three weeks, but it can vary.

"There are 16 beds in the house and then we have an additional four cots so we can service 20 youth at a time," Walton said.

Inside, it's all about structure and consistency.

"When they get in from school they start their homework, they get a snack," Walton said.

The kids also have the chance to work with case managers to offer support on an emotional level.

Walton says his goal is to help kids through whatever crisis they're going through.

"There is a safe place they can come," Walton said. "That they're not having the stresses they may be enduring at home or in the street — that people care about them and we just want them to be safe."

A combination of support from the school district and community helped 65 temporarily housed students graduate high school this past year. The people helping them get there say that's what it's all about.

"See the progress they can make when we are linking them to the correct services for their family and them and watching them become so proud of themselves with all the progress that they make that for me is the best part," Vargas said.

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