ST. LOUIS -- At St. Louis Public School headquarters downtown, the room down the hall is called the Unique Boutique. The nickname is humorous, but the reason for the food, coats, underwear, shoes, and toothbrushes is quite serious. The Unique Boutique is where homeless families in the St. Louis Public School District can pick up donated food and other necessities.
"When families come through, they can shop at no cost," said Deidra Thomas-Murray, SLPS Homeless and Foster Care Coordinator. "Whatever it is to facilitate academic support, we provide it. We provide hygienic supplies, uniforms, whatever it is to reduce the likelihood that a child is bullied, a child is teased, or a parent won't send a child to school."
The federal definition of student homelessness is having no stable place to call home. It might mean constantly moving between the homes of friends and relatives, or living on the street, or in a homeless shelter. Of the 26,238 students enrolled in St. Louis Public Schools, more than 4,719, 17 percent, are considered homeless according to federal standards.
Deidra Thomas-Murray says it's likely that the real number of homeless students in the school district is higher than 4,700, and that it's a statewide problem affecting many districts.
"Several years ago our account was 1,700 and we ended at 5,033 this past school year. It doesn't look like it's getting better."
Thomas-Murray has seen firsthand the effects of homeless and not just because of her job. A New Orleans native, Thomas-Murray was driven out of town by Hurricane Katrina. She was homeless ten years ago when she came to St. Louis because of the hurricane.
"Today it's me, tomorrow it's you, tomorrow it could be your children," said Thomas-Murray.
Thomas-Murray said educating more than 4,700 homeless students is one of the biggest challenges facing the St. Louis public school district. She said homeless students are at greater risk of disrupting class, falling behind, or dropping out.
A 2014 Tufts University study found that students experiencing homelessness are 87 percent more likely to drop out of school.
"Either these children become invisible or they're the most noticeable child in the school. They're going to fight or they are going to hide," said Thomas-Murray.
The St. Louis public school district provides a variety of services to help homeless families survive, including employment training for unemployed parents.
"We try to equip them with job skills, job readiness skills so that they are marketable and employable," said Thomas-Murray, "but where are the jobs?"