Poverty in America

A Memphis woman’s tragic death prompts reflection: Could vacant schools help fight homelessness?

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Graves Elementary School in South Memphis has been boarded up since its closure in 2014. It's one of 10 vacant school buildings in the city.

The death of a Memphis woman sleeping on a bench across from City Hall in frigid temperatures unleashed a furor of frustration this week across social media.

As Memphians speculated how someone could freeze to death in such a public place, some pointed to limited public transportation, one of the nation’s highest poverty rates, and entry fees to homeless shelters. The discussion yielded one intriguing suggestion:

About 650 Memphis students were considered homeless during the 2015-16 school year, meaning their families either were on the streets, living in cars or motels, or doubling up with friends and relatives.

At the same time, Shelby County Schools has an adequate supply of buildings. The district had 10 vacant structures last fall after shuttering more than 20 schools since 2012, with more closures expected in the next few years.

But what would need to happen for schools to become a tool against homelessness? Some cities already have already begun to tap that inventory.

Shelby County Schools has been eager to get out of the real estate business, though it’s not exactly giving away its aging buildings. In 2016, Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said the school system should “repurpose some of these buildings and … anchor some of these communities and rebuild and refurbish these communities instead of tearing stuff down.” The conversation was part of Memphis 3.0, the city’s first strategic plan since 1981 to guide growth for years to come.

District policy allows for “adaptive reuse” to lease vacant buildings for community development including affordable housing, community centers, libraries, community gardens, or businesses. A change requires a community needs assessment and input from neighborhood leaders and organizations before the school board can vote on a recommendation.

But proposals to transform schools into housing haven’t emerged in Memphis.

The Memphis Housing Authority, which oversees federal dollars for housing development, has a two-year exclusive right to purchase two former schools near downtown. But talk has focused on using that space for an early childhood center, not housing, according to High Ground News.

Under state law, districts must give charter schools, which are privately managed but publicly funded, serious consideration to take over a closed building.

That has happened for some Memphis schools, but high maintenance costs for the old buildings are a major deterrent. They also present a significant challenge for any entity looking to convert a structure into a homeless shelter or affordable housing.

Of the district’s 10 empty school buildings, most have a relatively low “facility condition index,” or FCI rate, which measures the maintenance and repair costs against the current replacement cost. The higher the number, the less cost-effective.


*as of October 2017

The idea to turn vacant school buildings into livable space is not new. Across the nation, some communities have found workable solutions to address the excess real estate.

In Philadelphia, a nonprofit organization transformed an empty four-story elementary school that was frequented by trespassers and drug users into housing for 37 homeless veterans and low-income seniors. The $14 million project, led by Help USA, took advantage of federal dollars set aside to house homeless veterans.

Last summer, leaders in Daytona Beach, Florida, pitched in $3.5 million in public funds to help a local nonprofit convert an elementary school into a homeless shelter. Despite pushback from neighborhood residents, the plan secured a unanimous vote from its county council.

In Denver, school officials proposed turning an elementary school into affordable housing for teachers to combat expensive living costs and rapid gentrification. That idea is was recently scrapped without an alternative proposal.

Detroit is riddled with empty school buildings. Developers there are buying up properties to repurpose for residential use as they wait to see what the market will bear. The city’s private Catholic schools have seen more success in transforming old buildings into apartments, luxury condominiums, or a boutique office building because they are smaller, easier to renovate, and don’t have the same deed restrictions as public schools.

The same appears to be true in Baltimore, where a nonprofit group converted a 25,000-square-foot Catholic school into housing for women and children. The $6 million project, completed last month, uses federal housing vouchers to subsidize rent.

In Memphis, the community is still assessing what resources need to be tapped in response to this week’s tragic death.

“Simply dismissing this as a tragedy will only allow us to continue to absolve ourselves from the apathy and selfishness that allow people to go unseen,” said the Rev. Lisa Anderson, a Cumberland Presbyterian pastor who is executive director of the city’s Room in the Inn ministry.

Editor’s note, Jan. 24, 2018: This story was updated with more recent information on Denver’s proposal for teacher housing that emerged after the story was published. 

Youth suicide

Younger Colorado students seek access to mental health care, without parental permission

PHOTO: Sandra Fish / Chalkbeat
Democratic Reps. Dafna Michaelson Jenet, in the foreground, right, and Dylan Roberts, left, present a bill aimed at curbing Colorado youth suicide to the House Public Health Care and Human Services Committee on Feb. 20, 2019.

A bill before the Colorado legislature would allow younger children to access confidential therapy on their own to fight mental illness and youth suicide.

A stream of Colorado teens on Wednesday told stories of their mental health crises, suicide attempts, and the deaths of friends as the House Public Health Care and Human Services Committee discussed House Bill 1120.

This is the third attempt by state Rep. Dafna Michaelson Jenet to expand access to therapy for middle school-aged children. Previous efforts died in the Republican-controlled Senate. Now Democrats control both chambers, but that doesn’t mean there is consensus on the best way to intervene in what has become a public health crisis in Colorado.

Some questioned the wisdom of allowing 12- to 14-year-olds to seek help from licensed mental health or social workers without parental approval. Current law allows people 15 and over to seek therapy without such consent.

Michaelson Jenet, a Commerce City  Democrat, said she’s considering adopting portions of a New York law that allows minors to get therapy without parental consent under certain circumstances. Already, she’s agreed to amend the bill to allow health providers to consult with a child’s parents if they think it’s warranted and wouldn’t harm the child.

She said she expects the committee to vote on the bill March 1, with additional amendments.

The bill also would have the Colorado Department of Education develop mental health and suicide prevention resources for schools around the state.

State Rep. Dylan Roberts, a Steamboat Springs Democrat who is a co-sponsor of the bill, noted that his district has been particularly hard hit by Colorado’s youth suicide crisis.

“Eagle County had 18 completed suicides last year in a community of only about 50,000 people,” Roberts said.

Suicide was the second leading cause of death in 2017 for those ages 10 to 21 in Colorado. Accidents ranked first, with 156 deaths; while 138 youths died by suicide, according to the Centers for Disease Control. That number is up from 72 suicides for the age group in 2008.

“We are in the top in the nation, No. 3, for youth suicide,” Michaelson Jenet said. “What are we going to do about it?”

Susan Marine, who lost two children to suicide, said the Suicide Prevention Coalition of Colorado agrees that youth suicide is a pressing issue that deserves action. But she suggested mental health workers should reach out to parents after a handful of confidential sessions with a child.

“All of our providers believe that it’s important to involve parents as soon as possible,” Marine said. “The parents may be totally unaware of their child’s struggle.”

Brad Miller, with the conservative group Colorado Family Action, went further, suggesting that allowing confidential counseling violates parents’ constitutional rights.

“Kids have limited cognitive ability to make these decisions,” he said.

His group, along with Colorado Christian University and Christian Home Educators of Colorado, opposes HB 1120.

But several young people said not all parents are supportive of their children.

Amy Rodriguez, now 16 and living in Thornton, said she came out to her mom at age 12. Her mother wasn’t supportive, and she couldn’t get counseling without permission until age 15.

“Your life’s more important than a relationship with your parents,” she said.

Riah Hollis, of Denver, talked of her brother’s struggles with gender identity and his suicide attempt. He didn’t want to talk to his parents because they didn’t support his gender transition.

“Sometimes kids don’t have a trusted adult at home. Sometimes a crisis involves parents,” she said.

Becky Zal-Sanchez, a social worker in Denver-area schools, said she’s often frustrated with the inability to provide services to young people without parental consent. “I reach out to parents over and over again, and nobody calls me back.”

Representatives from Mental Health Colorado, the National Association of Social Workers Colorado chapter, and Colorado Rural Health Center are among the supporters of the measure.

Michaelson Jenet is motivated in part by her own son’s mental health struggles. She noted that her son’s counselors reviewed his sessions with his parents, which set him back. “My son stopped trusting mental health providers, so he stopped telling them what was wrong.”

HB 1120 is among several bills aimed at dealing with mental, social, and health issues among young people. Michaelson Jenet is also sponsoring a measure to place social workers in 10 elementary schools around the state, a bill that prohibits conversion therapy for LGBTQ minors, and a bill to further subsidize school lunches for high school students.

Unmet needs

A social worker in every grade? Perhaps for 10 Colorado elementary schools

PHOTO: Ann Schimke/Chalkbeat
Fifth-graders practice mindfulness at Munroe Elementary School in Denver.

Educators, parents, and social workers told of students struggling with depression, younger and younger children attempting suicide, and youths ending up in prison. A bill approved Thursday by a Colorado House committee would pay for a three-year trial to provide social and emotional help for elementary students in the hopes of addressing some of these challenges.

If approved by the full legislature and signed into law, the measure would create a three-year pilot program at 10 high-needs schools. It is estimated to cost about $5 million a year. House Bill 1017 would place social workers, counselors or psychologists in every elementary grade at the test schools starting next year.

In an impassioned presentation, bill sponsor state Rep. Dafna Michaelson Jenet, a Commerce City Democrat, said schools need more social workers “to stop our children from dying by suicide, from ending up incarcerated, from being failed by our system.”

Suicide is a leading cause of death among youth ages 10 to 24 in Colorado, and advocates of the bill said schools are often ill-equipped to deal with children suffering from trauma, bullying and behavioral challenges.

The bill was scaled back from an original version that would have cost $16 million a year. Michaelson Jenet said the nearly $5 million annual cost would be funded in part by $2.5 million from the state’s marijuana cash fund, with the rest from private foundations.

The National Association of Social Workers recommends one social worker for every 250 students, and one for every 50 students at high-needs schools.

Colorado schools don’t come close to those numbers.

About one-third of the state’s 178 school districts employed social workers during the 2016-17 school year, the most recent for which data was available from the Colorado Department of Education. Those districts represented about 89 percent of that year’s 905,000 pre-K through 12th grade students.

The nearly 590 social workers employed worked out to less than one full-time employee per 1,000 students.

Englewood’s Sheridan School District had three social workers for 1,511 students, while Yuma County had 1½ social workers for 807 students.

The two largest districts, Denver and Jefferson County, employed more than one-third of school social workers that year, with more than one social worker for every 1,000 students. Denver voters approved a 2016 tax to help pay for more social workers.

But many districts have no social workers. And most school social workers are stretched thin.

Jessie Caggiano is a social worker who serves more than 3,000 students at four high schools in Weld County.

“I’m not able to meet with students effectively on a one-on-one basis, because I’m trying to implement other services schoolwide,” she said. “I’m only at each of my schools one day a week, so I’m not able to meet their needs by any means.”

Darlene Sampson, president of the Colorado chapter of the Association of Black Social Workers, recalled working at a Denver school when a student was killed in the cafeteria.

“Many kids are carrying their trauma in their backpacks into the school,” Sampson said.

And Cam Short-Camilli, representing the Colorado School Social Work Association, said students are facing increased emotional problems at most schools. The increase in youth suicide and suicide attempts is especially difficult, she said. One Denver incident last fall attracted national attention.

“Every school district, every student is impacted, that’s rural, urban, suburban schools,” Short-Camilli said. “In the past five years, I’ve been at elementary schools, and it’s been extremely shocking. Kids at those schools, there’s an immense ripple effect.”

But state Rep. James Wilson, a Salida Republican, questioned whether the pilot program would be possible to replicate because of the high number of professionals needed.

“I’m sitting here feeling like the Grinch,” Wilson said. “I cannot bring myself to put together an unrealistic pilot. Will it really work in the real world?”

State Rep. Janet Buckner, an Aurora Democrat, also expressed concerns, but voted for the bill.

“I’m concerned how we’re going to fund it,” she sad. “The suicide rate is off the chart and our kids need so much help. I don’t think we can wait. I have a lot of phone calls and emails about this bill, people who really need the help.”

HB-1017 next goes to the Appropriations Committee before being considered by the full House, then the Senate. It is one of several measures aimed at offering help for students and their families beyond academics at public schools.