WUSD officials say end of moratorium could lead to increase

By Dave Fidlin


Year-over-year, the number of homeless students attending the Whitewater Unified School District has decreased. But there’s a glaring caveat to the data, officials say, and could change this spring.

Wisconsin’s moratorium on property owners evicting renters is slated to sunset March 31. The provision has been in place to help mitigate the impact from COVID-19 and provide financial relief to people struggling at the hands of the pandemic.

Lanora Heim, WUSD’s director of pupil services, gave a presentation at the most recent regular School Board meeting on the district’s homeless statistics and shared the ongoing outreach efforts that have been in place.

As the 2020-21 school year inches toward the finish line, Heim said 57 of the students attending a Whitewater elementary, middle or high school are considered homeless.

In 2019-20, WUSD reported 62 homeless students, though Heim said the number might have spiked last spring once schools abruptly shutdown in response to the pandemic. In the 2018-19 school year, WUSD reported 75 homeless students.

Speaking to this year’s reduction, Heim said, “We firmly believe that it has kept the numbers lower during this scary COVID time. But that number might skyrocket this spring.”

Because of the transient situations homeless families sometimes find themselves in, Heim said the district’s figures only tell part of the story. There are Whitewater families with children attending schools in other districts, and vice versa.

“It’s a very complex number,” she said. “It’s difficult to get to the numbers, actually.”

The vulnerability of homelessness, exacerbated during the uncertain times COVID-19 brought on, has spurred additional actions, Heim and other WUSD officials said.

The district was the recent recipient of a three-year Education for Homeless Children and Youth grant in the amount of $35,000 per year. The funds are to go toward helping homeless middle and high school students with proficiency in core subjects and explore post-graduation options.

In November, the district also hired Brianna Pope, a Whitewater High School graduate, as an education outreach coordinator. Her role includes reaching out to students identified as homeless and assisting them with academic and behavioral support during study halls.

While COVID-19 has shined a spotlight on the plight of homelessness, efforts to provide assistance have been ongoing, said Mary Geraghty, a social worker within the district. Geraghty said families locally were especially impacted when the 2008 recession hit.

“I was dealing with a lot of families who’d never received help before,” Geraghty said of the conversations she had with local families a dozen years ago. “It was the story of people being one paycheck away from devastation.”

The district has been tapping resources for a number of years, including a Family Emergency Fund that has been fortified through local donors and partnerships through such nonprofits as the United Way. To date, the fund has assisted 50 families with small or large donations.

Bethel House has also been cited as a local resource that has assisted families. Geraghty and Heim also mentioned incidents of Whitewater residents who have opened up their homes to families in need.


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