BROOKSVILLE — It's a typical morning in Shanika Figueroa's office at Hernando County School Board headquarters: She's not there.
By noon, Figueroa has crisscrossed the county in her baby blue Mitsubishi Galant, matching resources with some of the county's youngest victims of the economic downturn. Some need clothing; some need help finding a place to stay. Others need health care, food or school supplies.
Two months into the school year, Figueroa, the homeless student liaison for Hernando County schools, has already identified 115 new students in need of her services. That's more than half as many students who were identified during the entire 2009-10 school year.
"As the economy worsened, it became very clear that a part-time person could not adequately deal with the numbers," said student services director Jim Knight. "The job has gotten bigger."
Last May, the school district was able to hire Figueroa full time with the help of a federal stimulus grant. Prior to that, the job was handled as part of social worker Carol McAvoy's assignment.
Federal legislation protects the rights of students who lack a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence, including families sharing housing because of economic hardships such as job loss or foreclosure.
And it is Figueroa's job to help educate both colleagues and families to ensure those rights are met. If she fails, the students' studies can suffer.
"Kids can lag behind four to six months every time they move," Figueroa said.
To provide greater consistency and increase the odds for academic success, students without a permanent residence have the right to stay at their school of origin and receive transportation for the remainder of the school year.
They also have the right to enroll in school immediately, even if they are missing records and documents usually required for enrollment.
Normally, schools tend to be sticklers for rules.
Enrolling a child requires evidence: proof of a child's birth date, in some cases including a sworn affidavit; proof of immunization paperwork, dated and signed by a doctor; proof of residency in the form of a lease, homestead exemption card or electric bill; and records from prior schools.
Students qualifying under the McKinney-Vento Homeless Education Assistance Act have the right to enroll in school immediately while the documents are obtained.
Figueroa, 29, graduated last May with a master's degree in social work from the University of South Florida.
She quickly learned that to reach her audience, she would need to choose her words carefully.
While attending open house nights at county schools, she learned that standing under a sign with the words "Homeless student liaison" nearly guaranteed that no one would stop.
Now she uses words like "temporary" or "transitional," which better captures the housing situation for many — particularly those doubling up with family or friends to ride out the economic downturn.
The district has seen an increase in unaccompanied youth — children under the age of 18 who are no longer in the care of a parent or guardian. Those students are also protected under the McKinney-Vento Act and have the legal right to register themselves for school.
As she continues to work with families, Figueroa notes that it's rare to find a family just seeking one service.
"If they need meals, they might also need food at home," she said. "If they need food at home, they might also need school supplies."
And sometimes they need everything.
Figueroa works closely with agencies — including the county's health and human services office — nonprofit organizations and churches to connect families with available resources. And she tries to have a few things on hand for families needing immediate support.
Sometimes this happens when families that have been doubling up reach a breaking point.
A person seeking help might have five kids and the person they are staying with has five kids. Sometimes there's a grandmother in the mix. It's a lot of people under one roof, sleeping wherever they can find a place. No one has any privacy. What seemed like a good option for a few weeks turned into months, and it's time to move out.
Maybe the school can help. A voicemail message requesting assistance goes to Figueroa.
In her office, a thick stack of student residency questionnaires waits for her attention. While the stimulus funding for Figueroa's position will dry up at the end of the current school year, it's unlikely that her case load will follow suit any time soon.
"I see it as a very necessary position," said Knight. "I hope we can find the grant funds to continue it."
Shary Lyssy Marshall can be reached at [email protected]