Association of Texas Professional Educators
Association of Texas Professional Educators

Round Rock ISD Community Fights Ongoing Student Homelessness Crisis

Round Rock ISD Community Fights Ongoing Student Homelessness Crisis

By Jack Densmore

Multiple factors, including natural disasters, a global pandemic, and the rise of human trafficking have led to a youth homelessness crisis in Texas. Fortunately, there are organizations all over the state that are hard at work to help these children, and they could use your support.

Round Rock ISD’s Families in Transition program and the student-run Project Red, also located in Round Rock, are both fighting to support homeless youth and homeless families in the Central Texas community north of Austin. The McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act was signed into law in 1987 by President Ronald Reagan. This act requires school districts to have a local education liaison to ensure the rights of homeless students are being upheld and help homeless families with education and transportation services. For Round Rock ISD, this requirement is fulfilled through the Families in Transition program. Program coordinator Desiree Viramontes serves as the district’s homeless/foster care liaison and as Project Red sponsor.

Round Rock ISD’s Families in Transition program is located next to Round Rock High School and the Round Rock ISD administration office. The resource center includes a welcome area created through a Girl Scout project, several books, tutoring services, fresh produce donated by local farmers and food banks, a play area, and outside seating for picnicking and for appointments. The building is also equipped with a washer and dryer should families need to complete laundry during their appointments. The program also aids students with several supplies, including backpacks and hygiene kits. The center also has clothes and blankets. The program is supported by Nike, and the center contains a shoe wall as shoes are one of the easiest clothing items to provide to help students blend in.

The National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) released a report in March on youth homelessness in the United States, estimating that 4.2 million youth and young adults are experiencing homelessness in this country and that the number of unaccompanied minors—youth with no family, parent, or guardian—is approximately 700,000. The NCSL estimates that one in 10 adults between the ages of 18–25 and one in 30 youths ages 13–17 will experience homelessness each year. With current classroom sizes in Texas, this can equate to almost one child in every classroom who will experience homelessness.

The Causes of Homelessness

Multiple factors contribute to homelessness in both youth and adults, including natural disasters, global pandemics, human trafficking/sex trafficking, drug abuse, and the foster care system. For example, after Hurricane Harvey hit Texas in 2017, an estimated 22,000 youth were homeless in the Houston area, according to The 74 organization. Before 2017, the population of homeless students in Round Rock was only 600. Since 2017, the number of students experiencing homelessness in Round Rock ISD has increased by approximately 200 each year, with more than 1,000 students currently being served by the district’s outreach. The district’s youth homeless population is fairly evenly split between elementary and secondary students, with 545 students in pre-K through fifth grade and the rest in middle school and high school.

The COVID-19 pandemic shaped the world in many ways, but one of its most harmful effects was the displacement of families. Stimulus checks during the pandemic aimed to ease the hardship, but when those benefits ended, many families were once again left in a financial bind.

“After that first stimulus check, what we saw was a bump of families being able to stabilize with that increase of money, like being able to go into an apartment for the first time in a few years,” Viramontes says. “Then, as the stimulus checks kept going, everything was fine. But during this school year, in particular, we saw a jump in our numbers, and there were no family stimulus checks, and there was a decrease in the amount of SNAP food benefits.”

With rising rent, inflation, and an affordable housing crisis, Viramontes believes it is getting harder and harder for families to achieve housing stability.

“It is really impossible to stabilize in our area, in particular,” Viramontes says. “There’s nothing going on in our society at this point—post-COVID—that’s making it any easier for families to stabilize. One thing can throw off a family very, very quickly.”

Another cause of the rise in homeless youth in Texas has been weather events, such as the winter storm in 2021.

“We’ve seen just an increase in natural disasters in the state of Texas since 2017 to the point where now each school year, I don’t know what the natural event is going to be or when it’s going to hit,” Viramontes says. “It just seems like par for the course that we’re going to have a winter event every year, and before, we didn’t.”

“It is a huge crisis that our nation is going through,” Viramontes says. “It is something that many people are not even aware of. It’s embedded in affluent neighborhoods and poor neighborhoods alike. There hasn’t been a year where I haven’t talked to or worked with a family that is escaping those situations.”

Viramontes further explained the current situation in Texas and stated that Waco and Houston are some of the biggest areas in human and sex trafficking with I-35 acting like a conduit between major cities. According to the Department of Homeland Security, thousands of human trafficking cases are reported every year, but many more are not. The National Sexual Violence Resource Center states one in three teens on the street will be lured into prostitution just 48 hours after leaving the house. The National Network for Youth also states about 20% of homeless youth are survivors of human trafficking and that about 68% have been trafficked or engaged in “survival sex,” which occurs when someone who is homeless trades sex for food or shelter. The most vulnerable to trafficking are LGBTQ+ youth and children who have left foster care.

Viramontes observes that right now there is a lack of hard data regarding homelessness in LGBTQ+ youth. However, the National Coalition for the Homeless estimates about 40% of the homeless youth population across the country identifies as LGBTQ+. This is in contrast to the 10% of general youth population who identify as LGBTQ+.

“It’s kind of hard to track that part of it,” she says. “We’re still missing the fact that LGBTQIA are hugely vulnerable in the homeless population and highly at-risk of getting kicked out of their homes.”

Still, programs and organizations such as Round Rock ISD’s Families in Transition and Project Red are not giving up on providing aid and relief for those experiencing homelessness, no matter the cause.

Extending a Helping Hand

Project Red is a student-run organization located in Round Rock founded by two students, Jishnu Saani and Andrew Vu.

One of their projects, Project First-Aid, provided first-aid kits to those who are homeless. After receiving donations, Project Red was able to coordinate with the Salvation Army to distribute these first-aid kits. The project started slow as both Saani and Vu encountered obstacles and unintended consequences.

“We would make these custom first-aid kits for each of these different (seasonal) situations,” Saani says. “One crucial thing we learned from this drive is these kits may not be used for the best purposes. The majority of homeless people are addicted to certain kinds of drugs, and although these kits are intended to get them out of this cycle of homelessness, it kind of did the opposite.”

The kits contained alcohol wipes, which are sometimes used to disinfect an area before applying drugs.

“That was a bummer,” Saani says. “Our intentions were being reversed, and we did not want to contribute to the problem. So we immediately halted operations.”

Although the project hit a roadblock, Saani and Vu continued in their efforts to help homeless individuals. This includes their most recent project, Project Camouflage. The idea behind the project was to help homeless students during the winter with food and clothes that would help them blend into the school environment. The project resulted in the donation of 3,000-plus cans of food and hundreds of pieces of clothing.

“Over 300 families benefitted from the clothes and food that we had,” Saani says. “This also meant we could support one family for an entire year through just our food drive.” Volunteering for programs and organizations such as Round Rock ISD’s Families in Transition and Project Red are some of the best ways to help. Project Red also has internships available, and you can donate to both causes.

“The decisions that our interns and our volunteers make directly impact what we do as a nonprofit,” Vu said. “The best way to [help] is to donate to organizations like us, who know what to do with these resources so that these people in need of resources can get them in a way that isn’t harmful to them.”

Family support provided by Round Rock ISD’s Families in Transition program includes enrollment assistance, free school meals, tuition fees for summer school, parent education resources, counseling referrals, transportation, and services for homeless students, such as early childhood and special education programs.

“It’s a really nice space,” Viramontes says. “It’s a space where families come in and get the care that they need and the case-by-case management that they’re looking for.”

During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Viramontes wanted to still help families in need while also keeping them safe. So she began doing curbside services to give them the resources and supplies the families needed while also maintaining social distancing, and while doing curbside, she had a lightbulb moment that would include the help from Project Linus.

“I immediately go and email Linus Blankets, so instead of making quilts, they started making face masks,” Viramontes says. “So, the next time he came through, he had Hulk and Iron Man (facemasks) and was the happiest kid.”

It can be difficult for adults and teachers to connect with students and youth experiencing homelessness. This is what separates Project Red from other organizations is the fact that it is entirely student-run, which helps the project with homeless students to provide aid and support both materially and on a personal level.

“We’re students ourselves, and other students relate with people like them,” Vu says. “They might not listen to an adult. We’re on their level; they trust students like us, and I feel like they appreciate that so much more.”

How You Can Help

Both Project Red and Families in Transition are always open to help from the public, and other school districts across the state have similar programs that need public support. For Families in Transition, it is possible to donate online, which goes directly to the students and families experiencing homelessness in the program. Project Red also provides a way for the public to donate online, and the money goes to future events, supplies, charities, and supporting the nonprofit’s operations. Project Red is also open to volunteers, and though most volunteers are students, it is open to adults as well. Plus, Project Red offers internships.

There are several ways to report suspected human trafficking, including contacting federal law enforcement by calling (866) DHS-2-ICE, or by submitting a tip online at Trafficking victims are urged to call the National Human Trafficking Resource Center at (888) 373-7888 or text 233733.

The Texas Human Trafficking Resource Center also has a variety of resources available, including online chat through the Human Trafficking Hotline Web Chat.