A coalition is forming to try to address the problem, focusing on the homeless youth between the ages of 13 and 21.

Editor's note: This story has been edited to reflect that the coalition will help homeless youth in Camden and Miller counties, not Morgan County.  We apologize for any confusion this may have caused.

When most people think of Lake of the Ozarks, they envision flashy boats and big lakefront homes. They don’t think of poverty and homelessness, but the population exists and is especially troubling among our children.

A coalition is forming to try to address the problem, focusing on the homeless youth between the ages of 13 and 21.

Earlier this week, the Lake area’s Project Healthy Living nonprofit organization brought together nearly 40 stakeholders representing a variety of local agencies — from law enforcement and school homeless liaisons to child advocates and job center staff — to initiate a discussion on how to help homeless youth in Camden and Miller counties. This group decided to focus on the 13-21 year old age range as a way to reach older children and young women and mothers of smaller children.

Morgan County already has a general coalition to help children in need.

In three-part series in March 2017, the Lake Sun documented rising homelessness among youth in the region during the national recession and recovery which began around 2008 to 2009. In addition to the recession, many more youth are also being identified due to greater awareness among education officials of the issue. 

From school district reports made to the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, more than 1,000 students in the tri-county region were considered homeless at that time.

It should be noted though that homelessness is defined differently for public school educators than for other federal programs like HUD or the VA. The McKinney-Vento Act of 2001 defines homeless children and youth as those who “lack a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence.” That includes children who are sharing housing of others due to a loss of housing from an economic hardship; are living in motels, hotels or campgrounds due to a lack of alternative accommodations; are living in emergency or transitional shelters; are abandoned in hospitals or are awaiting foster-care placement.

Camdenton R-3 School District appears to be particularly hard hit, at least in part due to the extent of seasonal type work available in the main part of the Lake region and a lack of affordable housing, documented through a study conducted by the Lake of the Ozarks Economic Development Council.

From a count of 83 in the 2009-10 school year, the district rose to 459 in 2015-16, as reported by the Lake Sun in 2017. 

Camdenton’s large numbers are partially related to the size of the district. But with total enrollment of 4,350 in March 2017, there were then 523 students considered homeless on the day we talked to Dill, representing roughly 12 percent of students.

At the October 1, 2018 kickoff meeting, Camdenton R-3 Assistant Superintendent Dr. Julie Dill reported numbers since the start of the 2018-19 school year — a total of 446 students are currently considered homeless.

Of these, 338 are living doubled up — multiple families living under one roof. Forty-six are considered “unaccompanied” youth — children not living with their parents. At least 15 are families living in a motel and 15 in a transitional shelter. Others are living in homes considered substandard or may be awaiting foster-care placement.

But homelessness is not just an issue for Camdenton R-3. 

School of the Osage was not represented at the new coalition meeting due to an emergency situation for the homeless coordinator with one of the students. Numbers passed along to Project Healthy Living member. 

At the Monday gathering, Macks Creek Superintendent Joshua Phillips reported approximately 33 homeless students at his much smaller district. Patti Brayfield initially estimated 250 homeless students last year but much less actually documented.

Eldon School Homeless Coordinator Aaron Berendzen reported more than 30 were documented at his district, but noted that the school officials believe this data point vastly underrates the real number.

“We know the number is not accurate,” he said, citing trouble identifying the living situation of many students but also resistance from families to admit homelessness under the McKinney-Vento definition and due to the stigma attached to it.

“They always say, ‘no, we’re fine,’” Berendzen said.

The definition enshrined by McKinney-Vento though recognizes the impact of unstable living conditions on individuals and families, especially developing youth.

Children who lack a stable home are among the most vulnerable in our society. Not only are these youth more likely to have severe, acute and chronic health problems, they’re twice as likely to have to repeat a school grade, be expelled or drop out of high school, according to America’s Youngest Outcasts, A Report Card on Child Homelessness, 2014. They often deal with anxiety and depression related to insecurity and sometimes trauma.

It is in children that you can see the cycle of generational poverty continue or take hold.

Phillips noted that 86 percent of Macks Creek students are living at or below the base poverty rate set by the federal government with 45 percent on food stamps. Poverty rates are relatively high throughout the Lake area though.

Citing the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, 2014, the America’s Youngest Outcasts report explains that the brain is constructed through an ongoing process that begins in-utero and continues into adulthood. In the first few years of life, new neural connections and skills are forming rapidly followed by more complex skills, which is why early childhood is always cited as being such a crucial development time. Though brains never stop developing, a strong foundation is optimal. Traumatic life experiences have a greater impact on a child’s developing brain.

While some stress is part of healthy development, the Center finds that high levels of stress for significant periods of time without adequate care taking and supportive relationships lead to toxic stress results, impairing neural connections, especially for higher-order skills. Early traumatic experiences can lead to altered brain size and impair cognitive skills, memory, emotional self-regulations, behavioral problems, coping and social relationships.

The outcome can be lack of educational attainment and work placement.

The new coalition discussed needs of the 13 to 21 year old homeless population at Lake of the Ozarks, including already available resources to fill these needs and perhaps currently unassisted needs from the physicality of consistent food and shelter to substance abuse and trauma counseling.

Another meeting has been scheduled in November to brainstorm solutions related to funding and locating a sustainable outreach center or centers.