More kids in Northern Kentucky are homeless because of the heroin epidemic, experts say

'Sometimes it happens in the middle of the night'

EDGEWOOD, Ky. — As the number of children experiencing homelessness continues to grow in Northern Kentucky, some school administrators are concerned about a disturbing trend:

More kids are becoming homeless because their parents have gotten caught up in the heroin epidemic.

"These are children that, possibly the parents overdose or are incarcerated. Sometimes it happens in the middle of the night," said Kelly Blevins, Kenton County School District's court liaison and homeless education coordinator. "A relative or nonrelative will be given the children in lieu of foster care, and they bring them in and enroll them in school."

Those kids who aren't living with parents or legal guardians are known as "unaccompanied," Blevins said. It used to be that Kenton County's "unaccompanied" students tended to be high school kids who were staying with friends because of problems with their parents. But Blevins has started to notice "unaccompanied" students as young as 6 or 7, children left in the wake of a parent's addiction to heroin.

Kristy McNally, who oversees homeless education programs for Newport Independent School District, said she has seen an increase in such cases in Newport, too.

Related: Thousands of Northern Kentucky children are homeless

"That number is definitely more than it ever has been," McNally said. "People aren't talking about it because they don't know to talk about it."

The role that heroin is playing in homelessness will be among the topics discussed at a Northern Kentucky Forum on Thursday called "Homelessness: Examining Causes, Finding Solutions." The forum will take place at 6:30 p.m. at the Covington Branch of the Kenton County Public Library. For more details, click here.

Number of Homeless Students Growing

Schools don't have firm numbers to track how many kids are homeless because of heroin, Blevins said.

In fact, school districts haven't yet reported their numbers of homeless students to the Kentucky Department of Education for this academic year.

But reports from the last three school years show the total number of homeless students has grown in public schools in Boone, Campbell and Kenton counties.

The 14 school districts in those three counties reported 1,885 homeless students during the 2012-2013 school year. By last school year, that number had grown to 2,112 students.

The kids aren't sleeping in cars or on park benches in most cases. School districts use a definition mandated by the federal government that includes any child who does not have a "fixed, regular or adequate nighttime residence."

Some homeless children stay with other relatives, either with or without their parents. Others stay in shelters. Still others stay at inexpensive motels with their families because of the shortage of affordable housing in the region.

Those who have been removed from their parents because of heroin addiction, however, are often shuffled from their homes to someone else's custody quickly, McNally said.

"I can't imagine what a child experiences when they are just removed suddenly, whether it's when they're at school or at home," she said. "Then they've got to change their school, just disrupting them left and right."

Blevins said Kenton County School District staff works to help relatives as much as possible to get medical care for children they suddenly take in and help them determine if the kids have the immunizations they need.

A Growing Problem

The DCCH Center for Children and Families in Fort Mitchell, Ky., has had a huge increase in the number of young children who need foster families because of the heroin epidemic, said Ron Bertsch, director of foster care and adoption for the center. Those children are not homeless, of course, but the increase underscores how the powerful drug is disrupting kids' lives.

For most of the 17 years that Bertsch has worked at the DCCH Center, the organization got referrals from the state each month for about 30 children in need of foster care. That number started growing in 2012, he said. And in July 2015, the referrals spiked at 300 that month. The figure has decreased a bit, Bertsch said, and he now gets referrals for about 270 children each month.

The center doesn't have nearly enough foster parents to accommodate all those children. But of the 52 children the center has in foster care, nearly three-quarters of them are there because a parent either died of a heroin overdose or is still addicted to the drug.

"There's no doubt it's because of heroin," he said. "It's directly linked to that."

Of course, children and young adults who are addicted to heroin also can end up homeless when their families have no other choice but to deny them a place to live, said Noel Stegner, a co-founder of the group NKY Hates Heroin.

But Stegner said his group is hearing more and more about younger children who get caught up in the heroin epidemic crossfire.

Especially when the students suddenly move from Ohio to Kentucky, Blevins said, "they're kind of these children who can fall between the cracks."

"Homelessness: Examining Causes, Finding Solutions" will be at 6:30 p.m. Thursday at the Covington Branch of the Kenton County Public Library.

 

 

Panelists will include Kelly Blevins along with: Kevin Finn, CEO of Strategies to End Homelessness; Kim Webb, executive director of Emergency Shelter of Northern Kentucky; and Linda Young, executive director of Welcome House.

Marianne Scott, human services specialist with the Northern Kentucky Area Development District, also will present an overview of homelessness in the region. Everyone who attends is encouraged to bring a canned good to donate.

WCPO Insider is media sponsor.

Lucy May writes about the people, places and issues that define our region – to celebrate what makes the Tri-State great and also shine a spotlight on issues we need to address. Childhood poverty is an important focus for her and for WCPO this year.

To read more stories by Lucy, go to www.wcpo.com/may. To reach her, email lucy.may@wcpo.com. Follow her on Twitter @LucyMayCincy.

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