Minneapolis is launching its most aggressive effort yet to help homeless students succeed in school at a time when homelessness in Minnesota is at a record high.

The new Stable Homes, Stable Schools pilot program, believed to be the first of its kind in the nation, will provide rental assistance and intensive social services to the families of about 650 students in Minneapolis Public Schools over the next three years. Officials plan to house the first group of families next month.

The program involves the city, school district, county and the Minneapolis Public Housing Authority and is a key initiative for Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey, who has stressed the need for affordable housing — the lack of which has a particularly devastating impact on schoolchildren, research shows.

In 2018, there were 10,233 homeless people in Minnesota, the most recorded since Wilder Research started tracking the data nearly 30 years ago.

Each day, as many as one out of 10 Minneapolis students are homeless, according to numbers released by the city.

“This is simply unacceptable,” Frey said. “We can’t expect our students to learn and succeed in the classroom if they don’t have a room to rest their head at night.”

To support the plan, the city is investing $3.4 million annually from its general operating fund. And if all goes well, Frey hopes to expand the program to help thousands of children across the city.

Crystal, a Minneapolis mother, says the only thing she and her kids need is a home. For years, she and her seven children have struggled to find a place to live — often bouncing between friends’ and relatives’ houses, and from one homeless shelter to another. With every move, her kids’ grades dropped.

The family’s story is far too common in the 34,000-student school system. More than 8 percent of the district’s elementary students are homeless, school and city officials say. That number is expected to rise as the rental market continues to tighten. The city’s new initiative is designed to help people like Crystal secure stable housing near their children’s schools to ensure that their education is not disrupted by constant moves.

Numerous studies show that homeless students lag behind their peers in reading, math and writing. Homeless and mobile students are chronically absent, receive poor grades and have one of the worst graduation rates in the nation, education researchers say.

Both locally and nationally, homelessness disproportionately affects minority kids, said researcher Ann Masten, a professor of child development at the University of Minnesota. Masten was part of a team that followed and tested 26,501 Minneapolis students in third through eighth grades for up to five years. Their study revealed that chronic homelessness generates persistent achievement gaps.

Housing first approach

Crystal, who’s pregnant with her eighth child, moved into the People Serving People shelter in late December after clashing with her landlord over unsanitary living conditions.

The shelter, she said, has become a refuge for her but it’s a sobering place for her kids, whose grades have been slipping and whose behavior has been getting out of control. One of her sons is now living with her best friend.

“Being homeless and having school-age kids is challenging because it affects their learning,” Crystal said. “The only thing my kids need is a home. I make sure they have everything else.”

In a neat, well-furnished room at the shelter, Crystal’s boisterous youngest kids skipped from one corner to the other, playing with anything they could get their hands on. Meanwhile, their older brother Jamareon, 11, gazed at them as he tried to finish his homework.

His sister Nashya’s magnetic voice could be heard from nearby. Clutching a bubble wand and blowing bubbles, she sang the chorus of a popular Destiny’s Child’s song.

“I’m a survivor,” Nashya, 13, cried out.

Margo Hurrle a Minneapolis Public Schools shelter office coordinator, has been working with homeless students for nearly 30 years.

It was in 1981 when her employer — then the state’s largest school system — first identified homeless students. Ever since, the share of Minneapolis students who are homeless and mobile has drastically risen. Hurrle has seen many programs come and go, such as the It’s All About the Kids initiative that ended in 2006 after funding dwindled. It was a similar partnership but much smaller in scope than Stable Homes, Stable Schools. Hurrle said she is hopeful about the new effort because it guarantees to stabilize the home lives of so many students.

“If we do the housing first, it’s so much easier after that to improve employment and education,” she said.

Daniel Gumnit, chief executive officer of People Serving People, which operates the region’s largest shelter for homeless children and families, said stabilizing the housing situation first is a national best practice.

Meanwhile, the City of St. Paul aims to help low-income families at select schools stay in their homes through financial assistance coordinated with the Wilder Foundation and other nonprofits. The move comes after Maxfield Elementary School Principal Ryan Vernosh — frustrated by the inability of families at his school to find emergency housing — spurred a push by others to force the city to act on the issue.

Not everyone agrees with the cities’ approach to helping homeless students.

Al Fan, executive director of Minnesota Comeback, a coalition of foundations and community-based groups aiming to close the achievement gap, said Minneapolis and St. Paul mayors should lead efforts that improve their cities’ low-achieving schools.

“Improving access to stable housing is noble and urgently needed,” he said. “But if it keeps kids trapped in low-performing schools, our cities are failing to address a broken education system that does not provide the same high-quality education to all kids in our cities.”

The Minneapolis Public Housing Authority (MPHA) will administer the Minneapolis program and contribute $1.4 million a year, funds that will go directly to rental subsidy. The program also could serve as a cost-saving plan for the financially strapped school district, which spends more than $10 million annually to transport homeless students to and from schools.

The Pohlad Family Foundation is investing $500,000, spread over two years, to help prevent families from experiencing homelessness. For example, it would cover expenses such as unpaid utility bills or other unexpected emergency costs that could threaten a family’s housing stability.

Kyle Hanson, director of the housing choice voucher and human services programs for the MPHA, said the agency will meet with the families to determine eligibility. The families who qualify for the program will get one-on-one support from a social service provider. The service provider will become the liaison between city and county agencies to make sure the families are getting the resources needed to stabilize their housing situation.

“That part of the program is quite unique because it’s services that are over and above what Hennepin County would normally offer to a family,” Hanson said. “But we really need the private market to participate in the program by stepping up with units to be made available for these families.”

Staff writer Anthony Lonetree contributed to this report.