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MANHATTAN Each year, Stan Ward, coordinator of federal and state programs and grants at Manhattan Ogden Unified School District 383, reports the number of homeless students and their families in the district.

The count is required by the federal McKinney Vento Act of 1987, which protects the rights of students who are homeless to attend school and ensures them equal access to quality education.

Ward said factors contributing to the increase include a growing disparity between the wealthy and poor in Manhattan; lack of affordable rental housing; an increase in migrants who come to the area to work in construction and other jobs; and low paying jobs.

“It an invisible problem in the school district,” he said, adding the number of homeless students at USD 383 is proportional to that found in Wichita and Kansas City.

Last spring, however, a local newspaper article about the growing number of homeless individuals in the Manhattan Ogden area caught the attention of citizens, Ward said. Since then, the community has become more aware of the needs of the homeless, and some residents have turned their concern into action.

With the help of more than a dozen local churches, numerous community organizations and hundreds of donors, the Families in Transition Closet was established during the 2013 14 school year in a detached classroom at Lee Elementary School. The FIT Closet provides food, clothing and other essentials to homeless students and their families.

“It in its second year now and support hasn diminished,” Ward said. “If anything, it growing.”

In early March, the FIT Closet moved into a small house owned by College Avenue United Methodist Church because the school district anticipates needing the detached classroom space in 2015 16 due to increased enrollment.

Barbara Harnett, coordinator of the FIT Closet, said a large supply of donated school clothing, shoes, school supplies, hygiene items, food and other items are maintained at the site. Six volunteers help out on a regular basis.

The FIT Closet isn open to the public. Recipients are vetted by a social worker and principal and brought to the site to pick up items.

Ward said the FIT Closet helps extend the limited McKinney Vento/Title I funds awarded to USD 383 to provide the range of basic services to homeless students and their families required by the law.

USD 383 is one of nine Kansas school districts to receive supplemental grant funding through McKinney Vento, he said. This school year, the district was awarded a $20,495 grant and set aside $12,000 in Title I funds to pay for the required services.

“We seeing this kind of progression (in homeless numbers), but the money has remained stable,” he said.

Patrick McLaughlin, associate pastor at First United Methodist Church, said several activities have helped promote awareness of homelessness in the community, including Everybody Counts events that include clothing and school supply giveaways, free eye exams, hot meals, food distributions and overnight shelter.

Efforts also are being made to create “transformational experiences” so community members see homeless individuals as their neighbors rather than recipients of their donations, McLaughlin said. For example, a Manhattan church is training volunteers to have affirming conversations with those coming to the church for free meals.

“We want to draw attention to the issue (of homelessness) and seek more justice and dig deep into the causes, so that we don need to have a FIT Closet,” he said.
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