St. George — It’s Back to School Night at Diamond Valley Elementary, and the auditorium is filled with the usual suspects: tired, young parents and restless, wriggling children. But near the back of the room, seated at the edge of the aisle, is a 47-year-old woman with a blue streak in her hair. She’s equal parts exhausted, anxious and out of place.
Her name is Cory Stanley-Stahr and her son, Seren, is starting first grade. She homeschooled Seren last year, so this will be the first time he’s set foot in a traditional classroom, she said. “He’s very excited … because basically the last year and a half, he’s not been around other kids.”
That’s because for the past 18 months, Seren and his parents have been intermittently homeless. And they’re far from the only family in this position tonight. According to homeless student statistics from the Utah State Board of Education, there were a total of 1,033 homeless students in the Washington County School District last year. The size of that group has more than quadrupled since 2003, and Washington County now has the seventh highest homeless student population of any district in the state.
Mike Carr has been the Homeless Liaison for the Washington County School District for the past five years. He says that about 80 percent of homeless students in his district are living “doubled-up” — shorthand for families sharing a home out of economic need. Even though that may not look like traditional homelessness, Carr emphasized that the situation is highly unstable.
“If you’re the guest family, there’s just constant stress,” he said. “You do have a roof over your head, and you’re protected and you probably have food. But even if it’s your own family, it’s like you’re one argument away from being kicked out.”
In some ways, that’s what happened to Stanley-Stahr and her son. She has a doctorate in biology, and they moved to Southwest Utah after she lost her job as a bee researcher in Florida. She decided to come to Washington County because she had a friend here with room for the two of them and their pets. But the arrangement only lasted a few days — and since then they’ve lived in a shelter for abuse survivors, a one-bedroom apartment, motels, her car and a mobile home. But eventually, they lost that, too.
At that point, Stanley-Stahr made a resolution. “I promised Seren that we would never lose our home again and I took what I got for our tax refund and I bought us a camp trailer,” she said. What she didn’t realize was that the trailer was too old to rent a space in an RV park. So for the past four months, they’ve been living in the desert without electricity or running water, shuffling between different areas of public lands.
Her husband Skip Stahr joined them about seven months ago. He says that before this, he’d never been homeless, and he worries about the effect that all of this is having on his son. But Stahr explains that they just don’t have the money to move into anything more stable. He works as a handyman, but his savings were wiped out last year when he was fined for advertising construction services he was not licensed to perform. She’s juggling five part-time jobs just to make ends meet.
“All these ridges around here have big, beautiful expensive houses on them. And there’s so many houses here, it doesn’t seem like there’s enough businesses to support [them],” he said. “It’s hard to fathom where all that money came from.”
Washington County is one of the fastest growing areas in the country. Between 1980 and 2017, the population grew from 26,065 to 165,662, an increase of more than 500%. The problem is that over the same time period, local wages haven’t kept pace with inflation, making it harder and harder for families who rely on working-class jobs to get by. And it’s likely to get worse, too, as the county is projected to triple in size by 2065 — mostly due to an influx of retirees.
It falls to Mike Carr at the school district to provide support to the students of these families. Every year, he gets about $60,000 dollars of state and district funding for fee waivers, food and transportation for homeless students. And he says the district gets hundreds of thousands of dollars in donated supplies.
Carr says they also have other discretionary funds to help pick up the tab for an occasional rent payment or power bill — whatever they need to keep a family stable and housed.
The district isn’t the only source of support in town though.
Switchpoint Community Resource Center has been a service-provider for the area’s homeless population over the past five years. They recently broke ground on a new affordable-housing complex and have received a grant to open a 24-hour childcare facility for working parents with long nights or graveyard shifts.
But even with new resources on the way, Switchpoint founder Carol Hollowell says much more is needed. “The bigger we get, the bigger our problem,” she said. “With what people make and what rent is in Washington County, it won’t ever work. It’s just too expensive.
At Back to School Night, that much seemed clear to Cory Stanley-Stahr, too.
“Sometimes, it brings you to tears. It’s gorgeous here, and it kicks me in the teeth every day," she said. "Where do you take your gifted child for an education when you’re dirt poor? That’s where I want to go.”
David Fuchs is a Report for America corps member who reports from KUER's Southwest Bureau in St. George.
Editor's Note 2:41 p.m. MDT 8/30/19: This story has been updated to show that Stahr was fined for advertising construction services he was not licensed to perform.