St. Paul principal confronts a new kind of bully: Student homelessness

Maxfield Elementary School principal Ryan Vernosh stands for a portrait
Maxfield Elementary School principal Ryan Vernosh stands for a portrait inside the school in St. Paul on Wednesday.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Maxfield Elementary School Principal Ryan Vernosh knows the start of each month can mean trouble for his students and their families. It's when apartment leases expire or rent goes up, and some families are pushed out of housing and left without a place to stay.

Still, Vernosh wasn't prepared for what he found recently as he scrambled to help keep a Maxfield student and their family off the streets.

He said he'd reached out to every contact he could think of to try to get them a temporary place to stay. Emergency shelters — many of which do not accept children — were full. There was no emergency funding for hotels from foundations and agencies. The mother, he said, was worried that if she took time off from work to figure out child care and shelter, she'd lose her job.

An anonymous private donor stepped in eventually with money for the family to spend a few nights together at a hotel. But it's a temporary solution, and the experience has become a hard lesson for Vernosh.

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"I get frustrated because our children are beautifully brilliant. They are amazing young people who are resilient beyond anyone's imagination," said Vernosh, who went public on Twitter Monday with the story, and his anger.

"And it ticks me off that they have to be that resilient; that no child should have to question where their head's going to lay down at night, whether they're going to have a meal the next day. The fact that they're able to get up, get to school is amazing."

While this family has a place to stay for a few nights, Vernosh said he's learned of eight other students who have become homeless since the beginning of the school term last week. That's out of a student body of more than 200.

The St. Paul school district estimates about 2,000 city students are homeless during the year.

In the district as a whole, about 85 families are on the emergency family shelter waitlist, which equates to about 200 kids. This means they're in need of shelter, but they have to wait until a spot opens up.

The average wait time for a family to get into a shelter is 35 to 40 days, according to the district's Project Reach program.

In Minnesota, no group is more at risk of homelessness than youth and children. Nearly half of the young people dealing with homelessness are younger than age 5, according to the most recent statewide survey conducted by the nonprofit Wilder Group in 2016.

Vernosh said at least a third of the kids at Maxfield, part of the Summit-University neighborhood, are homeless at some point in the year.

"I'm frustrated when I hear of families who are doing everything that they can for their children, for their families and because of lack of affordable housing, lack of livable wages or full time jobs, lack of health care, that all these different factors force families into decisions of work or find shelter and have a place for my children," he said. "That's a decision no family should have to make."

On Twitter, Vernosh called for political leaders to "step up and fight like hell" for policies that prioritize the needs of children.

"I wish as a school leader that we didn't have to navigate these challenges," he said. "I wish that we had a system in place where every child has a consistent place to live."