Homelessness isn’t a problem that’s confined to large metropolitan cities.
It can affect people in small towns and rural areas, and Mauston isn’t immune. In 2016, a report released by the Wisconsin State Journal showed that 5.5 percent of students in the Mauston School District were homeless, based on enrollment numbers from the 2014-15 school year. Out of 1,480 students, 82 were homeless.
Similar to many public school educators, Michele Yates-Wickus wears many hats. Besides serving as the director of special education and Lyndon Station Elementary principal, Yates-Wickus is also the homeless liaison at the Mauston School District. Yates-Wickus said the number of homeless students may be somewhat misleading since the 5.5 percent is just the percentage reported to the district.
“(Families) don’t have to report it because it’s optional,” Yates-Wickus said. “It’s based more on if I hear of things and I follow-up with the family and they’re willing to talk to me about it. During the 2015-16 school year, we had a total of 65 families or children that were affected by homelessness.”
Other area schools are also dealing with a high percentage of homeless students. According to the report, Wonewoc-Center, with an enrollment of 341, had 7 percent (24 students) that were considered homeless in 2014-15. Adams-Friendship had a homeless enrollment of about 4 percent, while Tomah, the largest district in the area, also had about 4 percent. Both Necedah and New Lisbon reported homeless enrollments below 3 percent.
In Mauston, parents can fill out a form when they register students for school, to request assistance. If parents list that a child has optional housing, Yates-Wickus follows-up with them to determine if they need school supplies and help with transportation.
“We do have some families who are staying out of district and they want to continue in our district and so we work with other school districts to provide transportation,” Yates-Wickus said.
In addition, the district provides families with a resource guide listing options for affordable housing. Pamphlets are available for families in buildings across the district.
Community support also goes a long way in helping neighbors. Mauston set up a donation room at West Side Elementary for community members to drop off school supplies for families in need. With winter likely to hang on for several more weeks, West Side has received coats, hats, gloves, boots and other warm clothes.
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“We have everything from packages of underwear that people have brought in to backpacks and just everyday school supplies that kids need,” said West Side Elementary Principal Lindsay Jacobs.
“The community is really supportive of the schools,” Yates-Wickus said.
The district also encourages families to reach out to S.E.A. of Change and Circle of Hope, two Juneau County organizations that work to find temporary housing for people who need it. In some cases, Yates-Wickus will ask the county human services department to assist families in the food share program.
“I just make sure they understand what is available if they want to hear about it,” Yates-Wickus said. “Sometimes they don’t, sometimes they do. Sometimes they don’t always realize we have help for them if they need it.”
The district has a small fund for groceries, but Yates-Wickus tends to limit use for families who are in desperate need, perhaps living in a car or a hotel room.
It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly why the Mauston area has a high number of homeless students, but there are several factors at play. Juneau and Adams counties are two of the poorest in the state. To survive financially, many parents choose to work factory jobs, which may require second or third-shift hours. Having grandparents watch the kids while their parents are at work is sometimes the best option because it’s affordable and convenient. In some cases, families will live with grandparents.
For students going through a tough situation, Mauston provides a therapist, Colleen James, who is available to talk to kids in a confidential setting.
“Our main goal is to support the education of the children so they can be successful in school, so we don’t have many resources to support the parents because it’s about making sure the kids have what they need,” Yates-Wickus said.
For families in need, a helping hand isn’t far away. Families can also contact the Mauston Community Sharing Pantry at 608-547-5459 for assistance.
Jacobs, in just her second year as principal at both West Side and Grayside elementary schools, has already experience the generosity of area residents.
“This community is pretty amazing at coming together to support families that need help,” she said.
Follow Kevin Damask on Twitter @kdamask