Mikaela Johnson has a vague notion of a home she’d like to live in with her mother and her younger brother and sister.
“A four-bedroom house,” she said. “A backyard for sure. Maybe a house that has no mold, no pests, no cracks, no floor that sinks.”
She paused. “Maybe I’m asking for too much.”
Rarely, if ever, in her 14 years has Mikaela lived in a home that matches her ideal. She is one of hundreds of schoolchildren in the Kansas City region who live on the brink of homelessness, their families consigned to substandard housing, when they can find it at all.
Mikaela’s mother, Ashley Johnson, has lost track of all the places they’ve lived.
There were a couple of apartments she got evicted from and others barely fit to live in. A stay in a family shelter. Too many hotel rooms and other peoples’ sofas and floors to remember. At her most desperate moment, in a Kansas City winter, Johnson signed Mikaela and her younger brother into a children’s shelter operated by the Salvation Army. She slept in her car, knowing her children at least were warm.
The Students the Pandemic Hit Hardest
The coronavirus pandemic closed schools and launched a national experiment in remote learning that has been chaotic and stressful for millions of American families. But in some households, the shift to homeschool was particularly catastrophic. In this series we profile vulnerable children whose education was already precarious and how the disease has exacerbated gaps in opportunities and resources for communities already on the edge.
Mikaela just completed eighth grade. She has lived the kind of transient life that school leaders worry about — especially now. Educators know that moving around disrupts learning. They fear the upheavals created by the coronavirus will cause more instability for low-income families already struggling to find and afford decent housing.
“Even before the pandemic we had an affordability crisis,” said Mike Koprowski, national campaign director for the National Low Income Housing Coalition. “We think there’s going to be a wave of evictions if Congress doesn’t act on another relief package. It’s going to further disrupt kids whose lives and learning processes have already been upended by school closures.”
A model created by the COVID-19 Eviction Defense Project, a coalition of economic researchers and legal experts, estimates that roughly 20 percent of the 110 million Americans who live in rented homes risk displacement by September 30 unless policymakers enact aggressive relief measures. That would amount to 19 to 23 million people, many of them schoolchildren.
33 affordable units are available for every 100 families who meet extremely low-income poverty guidelines in the Kansas City region
“Even if it’s remote learning, the eviction is going to have an effect,” said Lavar Edmonds, a research specialist at Princeton University’s Eviction Lab. “How are you going to do your homework or participate in classes at home if you don’t have the internet, if you’ve been kicked out of your home?”
Those concerns are acute in the Kansas City region, where, according to an annual survey by the National Low Income Housing Coalition, two of three very low-income families spend more than half of every dollar they earn on housing and utilities. Only 33 affordable units are available for every 100 extremely low-income families. Evictions are rampant and often mark the start of a slide into prolonged homelessness.
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“Housing is everything,” said Melissa Douglas, the liaison for homeless students in the Kansas City Public Schools district. “Moving from place to place is an unwarranted stress on adults and students. We know that the more moves [kids’] families make, the more gaps in their education that they may have.”
And student moves can be especially problematic in Kansas City. The metropolitan area, depending on how it’s defined, is a patchwork of 20 to 30 school districts. A move of just a few blocks can easily place a family in a different district. The region also includes districts in both Missouri and Kansas, with schools using different curriculums and standards across the state line. And 20 charter schools, some with multiple campuses, offer more choices but also more fluidity.
In 2015, a study revealed that one in five students on the Missouri side of the Kansas City region had moved at least once in a calendar year, and that students who changed schools had poorer attendance and lower achievement rates than students who hadn’t moved. More recent research from the Kansas City Public Schools district, inwhich nearly 40 percent of households with school-age children live in poverty, emphasized the flip side: Fifth graders who stayed in their schools for three consecutive years were twice as likely to score at proficient or advanced levels on state tests than children who switched schools; 11th graders who had attended the same high school for three years had higher GPAs and ACT scores than their more transient classmates.
“We think there’s going to be a wave of evictions if Congress doesn’t act on another relief package. It’s going to further disrupt kids whose lives and learning processes have already been upended by school closures.”Mike Koprowski, National Low Income Housing Coalition
Mark Bedell, superintendent of Kansas City Public Schools, understands how housing crises impact students and schools. Growing up poor in Rochester, New York, Bedell lived in 12 different homes from kindergarten through 12th grade and attended multiple schools — sometimes two or three in an academic year.
“I personally understand the impact of what mobility can do socially and emotionally to children,” Bedell said. “When you have to constantly restart, it’s depressing. You have to constantly meet new students and teachers. You’re leaving behind friends that you’ve met. It also has a negative impact on academic performance.”
Ashley Johnson, 35, experienced all of those setbacks.
“I was a child of foster care,” she said. “I know what it’s like to be in this school for two months, then another school for three months.”
When she could stay put for awhile, she enjoyed school and made honor rolls, said Johnson, who spent her childhood in Arkansas. But she struggled when she was forced to move. Eventually she dropped out of school and earned her GED at age 16.
After moving to Kansas City in her early 20s, Johnson spent some time in community college and at three separate for-profit career colleges, acquiring certifications as a personal trainer and a holistic wellness coach — but also a cumulative $30,000 in student debt. She currently works a clerical job for a government agency and drives cabs intermittently, while trying to launch a holistic wellness business.
Although her family has moved many times, Johnson has up until now managed to maintain some stability in school for Mikaela. The teenager has attended just two schools: a Montessori-themed magnet school from preschool through sixth grade, and a middle school with neighborhood boundaries.
“I was a child of foster care. I know what it’s like to be in this school for two months, then another school for three months.”Ashley Johnson, 35
“It’s been hard for us,” her mother said. “But I always managed to get on a bus line and get her to school.”
She was able to do so even though the family resided in a different school district for a few months, because of a 1987 federal law, the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, which guarantees an uninterrupted education to students who meet a broad definition of homelessness. Johnson learned about it through the Kansas City Public Schools’ Students in Transition Office, which Douglas runs.
During the 2019-20 school year, Douglas said she and her staff worked with about 1,230 students whose families lacked a permanent residence. They were doubled up with friends and relatives or living in motels or shelters. About 30 students were “unsheltered,” meaning they lived in cars, campsites or abandoned houses.
In total, school districts in and around Kansas City work with several thousand homeless students each year. Assistance can take many forms, such as laundry services, tutoring and the waiving of ACT costs and graduation fees. But it often involves transportation. On a typical school day, hundreds of taxis and minibuses crisscross the region, taking students to and from their “school of origin” — the one they enrolled in at the start of the academic year.
That’s what Douglas worked out for Mikaela. A taxi picked her up on school mornings and transported her to school, a ride of about 30 minutes. She returned home the same way.
School districts in the Kansas City region have relied more heavily on the McKinney-Vento mandate in recent years as more families have been priced out of housing. This has cut down on student transience, but transporting hundreds of students, some for rides of half an hour or longer, is costly. Kansas City Public Schools spends $700,000 to $1 million a year on rides for children in its Students in Transition program, Douglas said.
Educators also worry about the safety and well-being of children being transported long distances. “We have conversations where we talk with families about best interests,” Douglas said. “We need them to understand that this isn’t cheap. And I feel some kind of weight putting a kindergartner in a cab by themselves for over an hour.”
Mikaela Johnson said she enjoyed her cab rides, although they sometimes got her to school late. “One lady driver was really, really cool,” she said.
Academically, Mikaela held her own in middle school. She was inducted into her school’s honor society and selected for a trip to visit civil rights landmarks in Memphis during Black History Month. But she often was bored in classes, Mikaela said, and other students sometimes bullied her. She had wanted to participate in student council and track, but her family’s unstable living situation got in the way.
“We can sometimes control that one variable, keeping children in the same school, But if they’re moving from shelter to shelter and place to place, they’re still transient. They still don’t know where they’re going to be sleeping from night to night.”Mark Bedell, superintendent, Kansas City Public Schools
“Just busy at home,” Mikaela said, with a shrug. “Always moving. No correct transportation. I can say I have grown distant from a lot of friends. But it’s fine.”
Ashley Johnson said she wishes she could offer Mikaela a calmer adolescence. “My daughter, she is so motivating, so forgiving,” she said. “We have been through so much, but she is a model student.”
Housing insecurity can have profound impacts on students’ well-being and academic performance, Bedell said. “We can sometimes control that one variable, keeping children in the same school,” he said. “But if they’re moving from shelter to shelter and place to place, they’re still transient. They still don’t know where they’re going to be sleeping from night to night.”
Traci Pettis Johnson, who works as a family school liaison at an elementary school in the Hickman Mills School District in south Kansas City, where families mostly rent their homes, sometimes pleads her students families’ cases with landlords, trying to buy them time to pay rent and utility bills.
“Consistency in education is key,” she said. “If you have to sleep on the floor, if you have to live with relatives who may be working different schedules, keeping children up at night, if you’re leaving a child with a younger sibling, then getting to school becomes less of a priority and staying awake in school becomes harder.”
As wages fail to keep pace with rising rents and housing costs, families across the nation are finding themselves in a bind, said Megan Gallagher, who studies the relationship between housing and educational opportunities for the Urban Institute’s Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center. “Many households with children have trouble finding housing that is affordable, stable, well constructed, the right size for a family and in an affordable neighborhood,” Gallagher said.
Researchers refer to those characteristics as “the housing bundle,” and each one impacts education, Gallagher said. “Many, many families have to compromise or sacrifice at least one aspect of that bundle to get another,” she said. “The issues of affordability are also issues of stability and safety and health and success at school.”
Roughly 8 million extremely low-income renters spent more than half of their incomes on housing costs before the pandemic, according to a new report from the National Low-Income Housing Coalition, and more families are likely facing a similar cost burden now. A forecasting model from the Center on Poverty and Social Policy at Columbia University anticipates that poverty levels in the United States this year will reach those seen during the Great Recession, and could climb close to 20 percent.
Affordable housing has always seemed out of reach for Ashley Johnson, who acknowledges her rental history is not the best. She’s been evicted twice, once after she fell for a work-at-home scheme, not realizing the money orders her “employer” paid her were fake. She also left a few places without paying owed rent — usually after disputes with landlords about conditions.
She had an informal rent-to-own arrangement with the owner of a small house for a while, Johnson said, but the house needed expensive repairs she couldn’t afford. They left there in 2015 and “that’s when we started the hotel-hopping thing.”
The best place they’ve lived was a townhouse affiliated with a program that helps homeless families.
“It was a very clean place,” Mikaela said. “It was kind of spacious and I liked the fact that I had my own room.”
By that time, Johnson had given birth to Zach, who is now 3. She left the townhouse in 2018 to live with Zach’s father. They broke up a short time later, when Johnson was pregnant again with Zinnia, who now is nearly a year old.
“Long story short, it’s been all downhill,” Johnson said. “I thought I’d find another place instantly, but it hasn’t worked out for us.”
“I have a roof over my head. But no one should have to take those conditions. There’s too many pests. The ceiling is literally coming down. The floor is sinking. It should be torn down.”Mikaela Johnson, 14
They now live in a privately owned “transitional home,” a house where rooms are rented out separately, and residents share bathrooms and a kitchen. Johnson pays $500 a month to live with her three children in one bedroom. She thought the place would be a godsend, but it’s turned into a nightmare, she said.
When they moved there in the fall, the house was infested with bugs and rodents. A rat chewed through the cord of her breastfeeding pump, Johnson said. The refrigerator often didn’t work. She reported the conditions to the Kansas City Health Department, which arranged a mediation with her and her landlady. Since then, the rodent infestation has gotten better, but the place is barely habitable.
“People keep saying, ‘you should be blessed, you have a home.’” Mikaela said. “Yeah, I have a roof over my head. But no one should have to take those conditions. There’s too many pests. The ceiling is literally coming down. The floor is sinking. It should be torn down.”
Descriptions like that — and she hears many — outrage Douglas at Kansas City Public Schools. The McKinney-Vento act considers a student to be homeless if they lack a “fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence,” she noted.
“ ‘Adequate’ is our big thing,” Douglas said. “We’ve had families say they can’t walk across a room because there’s a big hole in the floor. That’s not adequate. Being rodent and pest-infested is not adequate.”
Johnson’s vision of an ideal home is simple. “Just a house, something that’s in my budget,” she said. “Something where my kids will be able to play safely and get back and forth to their schooling safely. Just coming home from work and being able to relax. I haven’t had the ability to relax in years.”
Before the coronavirus pandemic, Kansas City residents were already pushing officials to address the frequency of evictions. Researchers for the Kansas City Eviction Project published a study finding that landlords in Jackson County, where most of Kansas City is located, filed petitions to evict an average of 42 families per business day from 1999 to 2017. The pattern was so consistent the researchers suggested that “there could be a core of landlords in the city for whom eviction is a business model.” Judges granted an average of 25 evictions per business day.
An activist group, KC Tenants, began showing up at public meetings and campaign forums, loudly demanding that public officials commit to protecting renters and improving housing conditions. Ashley Johnson attends the group’s meetings and sometimes speaks up at public events about her housing struggles.
School leaders around Kansas City also started paying attention to the impact of evictions on families. Bedell in particular became a vocal supporter of measures to lift up low-income citizens and neighborhoods. “Being somebody who’s lived through evictions and homelessness, this is personal to me,” Bedell said. “I don’t want to be viewed as a superintendent or a person that made it and then dismissed all the struggles I went through in order to be here.”
In 2019, the superintendent spoke on the steps of City Hall the day KC Tenants introduced its demand for a “bill of rights” intended to give renters more power in their relationships with landlords. The Kansas City Council eventually met many of their demands in an ordinance.
Meanwhile, Bedell’s district and the Hickman Mills district teamed up with Legal Aid of Western Missouri to place lawyers and paralegals in school buildings to work with families in danger of being evicted. With schools closed due to the coronavirus pandemic, families currently reach out to lawyers by phone or online.
And several school districts around Kansas City partnered with nonprofit and faith groups that offer emergency rent and utility payments, counseling and job placement. Among them was the Center School District, which, according to its administration, had a mobility rate of 27 percent in the 2018-19 academic year — meaning over a quarter of its students transferred into or out of its classrooms while schools were in session.
“I would say that the No. 1 challenge is being able to maintain affordable, dignified housing in our district,” said Stacy King, director of family and student services.
Through a program called Impact Center Schools, her district has formed an alliance with multiple community partners to keep families from becoming homeless. The alliance has been able to help some families clear up their credit and erase evictions from their rental records, said Chris Buford, president of Serve the World Charities, a nonprofit that coordinates the work. But that assistance often isn’t enough to keep working families in the district. There simply isn’t enough appropriate housing to meet their needs.
“Honestly, nobody should be living in those houses,” Buford said. “In our experience, that comes down to out-of-town landlords and management companies that really have no interest in bettering this community.”
To address that issue, Serve the World and its partners are creating their own homes. A team of real estate agents, community leaders and others have been recruiting investors to purchase houses, improve them and reserve them for families in the Impact Center program.
While Impact Center’s stated goal is to end homelessness in the district within four years, everyone knows that is ambitious. In the absence of big public policy initiatives, the work of saving even one family at a time is slow going.
As school districts in the region contemplate hard choices on reopening this fall, educators and others anticipate more instability for families and more students on the move. Coronavirus cases are rising in the Kansas City region, forcing more businesses to lay off workers. Landlords, who had been temporarily barred by local government orders from evicting tenants during the pandemic, are resuming those efforts as cities and counties lift the holds.
“I expect our transience numbers, and numbers across the state, to go up dramatically,” Douglas said.
Koprowski at the National Low Income Housing Coalition said he thinks a spike will take place nationwide. His coalition is seeking a second federal relief package that would include generous rental assistance.
“I think we’re in a really dire situation,” Koprowski said. “The problem with these moratoria on evictions is that the rent still piles up. It’s not a rent-forgiveness program. People who have lost incomes as a result of the Covid-19 outbreak are really going to struggle to pay the large sums that are coming due.”
Meantime, Ashley Johnson’s family may soon be on the move again. Her landlady recently filed a legal motion to have her vacate the room she rents, even though she’s up to date on payments. Johnson is making plans to fight the motion while also looking for a better place for her family to live. Sometimes she eyes vacant houses in the neighborhood, wondering if they would work as a last resort.
Johnson used her one-time stimulus check to pay some overdue bills, but money is still tight. She makes $14.50 an hour at her clerical job, but a portion of that is being garnished by a creditor. Cab traffic is down and Johnson doesn’t feel safe transporting passengers during the pandemic. And she’s had few takers for her fledgling holistic wellness business. Mikaela’s high school plans are in limbo, with her school district uncertain about when students will be able to return to classrooms.
Mikaela tried to keep up with online classes in the spring, using a laptop and mobile hotspot loaned from the district, but it was tough in their small room, Johnson said. Child care for the younger children was shut down for a while, and Mikaela spent a lot of time caring for her siblings. “She didn’t log in as much as she should have,” Johnson said.
Mikaela still holds out hope for attending high school, and has identified the one where she’d like to enroll. But her wish list for a high school experience may depend on resources increasingly out of reach for a school district coping with virus fears, state budget cuts and likely more student transience and poverty.
“Maybe a school that recognizes that children of my age have problems at home and in the head also,” Mikaela said. “I see a lot of teachers and people that don’t understand the reason children act the way they do is because of a situation at home. Also, a school that teaches me something I need to know, something useful. And maybe more counselors, after-school programs, stuff like that.”