When you think about central Ohio students enjoying a break for Thanksgiving, you probably picture some using the time to focus on academics by catching up on some reading or math homework.

You might imagine others honing their skills for extracurricular activities, such as jazz band or debate, or perhaps eager athletes running laps around their neighborhoods to gain an edge for their next basketball game, or – let's be honest – the majority who are just hanging out and savoring time off school.

Were you aware of how many central Ohio students are considered homeless? Read the story by@ThisWeekMarla to find out more:https://t.co/LZ3Befp9YF

— ThisWeekNEWS (@ThisWeekNews)November 20, 2018

You probably aren't thinking of the thousands of students who don't have a stable place to call home.

By gathering information from public school districts in and around Columbus, ThisWeek has learned its coverage area has at least 4,100 students, from preschool to high school, identified as "homeless" per federal guidelines.

The bulk of those homeless students are in Columbus City Schools. Columbus is considered Ohio's largest district, with nearly 51,000 students enrolled and 21 high schools, said Scott Varner, the district's communications director.

The district reported 3,582 students who are considered homeless and without a permanent residence for this school year. This includes 303 in preschool, 1,991 in elementary grades, 678 in middle school and 610 in high school.

But the public suburban districts have homeless students, too – perhaps more in some places than one might think.

Out of 16 suburban districts that responded to ThisWeek, the number of homeless students for the current school year totals 567 across all grade levels, and every district reported having at least one homeless student enrolled.

The figures are: Bexley, 1; Delaware, 46; Dublin, 31; Gahanna-Jefferson, 35; Grandview Heights, 1; Groveport Madison, 33; Hilliard, 34; New Albany-Plain Local, 2; Olentangy, 40; Pickerington, 9; Reynoldsburg, 51; South-Western, 110; Upper Arlington, 2; Westerville, 84; Whitehall, 63; and Worthington, 25.

Canal Winchester is the only suburban district contacted that did not respond to the information request.

In aggregate, based on the figures each district provided ThisWeek, the homeless-student populations appear to be consistent over the past three school years.

Most of the districts specified they follow the federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act of 1987, as amended by the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, that defines "homeless children and youth" as individuals who lack a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence.

Per those federal guidelines, the term homeless refers to children and youths who are sharing the housing of other persons due to loss of housing, economic hardship or a similar reason (sometimes referred to as "doubled up"); living in motels, hotels, trailer parks or camping grounds due to lack of alternative adequate accommodations; living in emergency or transitional shelters; abandoned in hospitals; or awaiting foster-care placement.

It also includes youths who have a primary nighttime residence that is a public or private place not designed for, or ordinarily used as, a regular sleeping accommodation, or youths living in cars, parks, public spaces, abandoned buildings, substandard housing, bus stations or similar settings.

But the good news is these students don't appear to be neglected by their districts or communities.

The districts surveyed indicated they had internal programs to help, and most said their communities have a number of organizations that can provide assistance and allow individuals to help.

ThisWeek has selected four communities and their organizations to highlight some of these local efforts.

Gahanna's community resources abound

Gahanna has several community organizations that help support homeless students in the Gahanna-Jefferson Public School District.

Judy Hengstebeck, communications coordinator for Gahanna-Jefferson, said one of them is the Gahanna-Jefferson Education Foundation, which provides a list of resources for parents and staff to help all children in need.

President Sharon Tomko said the foundation also helps students who don't have stable homes through the Harvey Mast Care for Kids Fund and the Mechwart-Butts Scholarship.

The special fund helps students with personal needs, Tomko said.

"A staff person, typically a teacher or counselor, will reach out to us regarding a student with personal needs like coats, clothing and shoes," she said. "We are able to give the teacher/counselor a gift card to purchase the needed items.

"We have also helped homeless students who reside in shelters and homes outside of Gahanna by purchasing a bus pass so they are able to get to school and work."

The scholarship is for students who are in foster care or those who come from fragile family backgrounds, Tomko said.

"The unique aspect of this scholarship is it is renewable each year as long as the student is in good standing with his or her college/program of study," she said. "The scholarship can be used for a four-year degree, two-year degree or a trade/certificated program."

The foundation also provides each student a mentor.

"The mentors provide guidance for the students as they navigate through their next phase of education and living arrangements," Tomko said.

Since the inception of the program in 2015, Tomko said, the foundation has awarded $73,500 and is mentoring 10 students.

Anyone interested in joining the mentorship committee should call Tomko at 614-416-0298.

Another resource is Gahanna Residents In Need, a faith-based organization that provides food, clothing and financial assistance for rent or utilities for those in need within the school district.

GRIN's annual programs include a back-to-school fair and holiday assistance.

Beth Bentley, GRIN program director, said part of GRIN's pantry at 165 Granville St. includes children's clothing.

"We have coats seasonally," she said. "We receive children's clothing all year round. If we get something we can't use, we donate it."

Bentley said the children's pantry provides three outfits (top and pants), one coat and one pair of shoes per child.

"The community has been wonderfully supportive in donating us fantastic items," she said. "We try to make GRIN a place to come where you can get all immediate needs met: food, children's clothing, diapers for infants and limited financial assistance."

Bentley said the easiest way to reach GRIN is through grin4gahanna.org.

Another resource is Joseph's Coat of Central Ohio, 240 Outerbelt St. in Columbus. It is within the Gahanna-Jefferson district boundaries but serves central Ohio.

The nonprofit Joseph's Coat clothing ministry was born out of the needs of homeless families contacted through the Interfaith Hospitality Network, said Patricia Lutz, a nine-year volunteer and president of the organization's board of directors.

Several local churches have become partners, along with schools, businesses, social-service organizations and individuals.

Lutz said families in need connect through Joseph's Coat to receive clothing, furniture and household goods.

In 2017, she said, Joseph's Coat had 9,337 family visits.

She said the goal is to help clients reach the point they don't need assistance.

Lutz said donations of gently used clothing are welcomed at the facility.

More information about the organization is available at josephs-coat.org.

South-Western's clothing room 'here to help'

In the South-Western City School District, the Council of PTAs has operated a clothing room for about a decade to assist students and their families.

The clothing room is in a portable classroom behind Norton Middle School at 215 Norton Road in Columbus.

"Families can make appointments to come here and get clothing for their children," said Amy Berry, the council's chairwoman for the clothing room. "We take in donations of gently used or new clothing, shoes and boots, and we'll even accept donations of lunch boxes."

Appointments can be arranged for any time school personnel are in the main building at Norton, she said.

"We only arrange one appointment for any given time so that families can have privacy and come in to get what they need for their children," Berry said.

Families are not required to present proof of income or fill out any paperwork, she said.

"If they say they need clothing, we're here to help," Berry said.

Last year, the clothing room served 16 South-Western families, she said.

"It was a record year for us, but we know there's a much greater need in our community," she said.

Some families might not know about the clothing room, but information is listed in school newsletters and staff members at schools are encouraged to let families know about the clothing room, Berry said.

"We'd love to help as many families as we can," she said.

Donations of clothing for the program can be dropped off at any South-Western school building, she said.

"We're always in need of pants for younger students and new socks and underwear," Berry said. "But any donation is greatly appreciated. I see a real benefit of our community looking out for families who need a helping hand."

Nearly all of the district's schools have their own supply of clothing available for students, said Sandy Nekoloff, South-Western's executive director of communications.

"They all have their own individual setup," she said. "In a lot of cases, the clothing's available for when a student has a clothing 'emergency' at school, like something gets torn during recess and they need something else to wear."

The schools also offer assistance to students or families in need, Nekoloff said.

Charity bridges gaps in Westerville – and beyond

Westerville resident Rick Bannister founded Neighborhood Bridges, a 501(c)(3) charity, in January 2017 to help homeless children and others by posting needs online and asking the community to help.

Neighborhood Bridges now serves children and families in seven central Ohio communities, including Dublin, Gahanna, Grove City, Hilliard, Upper Arlington, Westerville and Worthington; it soon will expand to the New Albany community.

"In every community we're in, we're about speed and efficiency and providing kindness," Bannister said. "For the Westerville part of Neighborhood Bridges, we don't get in the food business, because we have WARM (the Westerville Area Resource Ministry). The community prescribes Neighborhood Bridges, depending on their need."

In the charity's first year, counselors from all three Westerville high schools contacted Bannister about the needs for homeless high school students.

"I was devastated to learn about this," he said. "And I actually cried about it for two days before I could even come to grips that this was happening in Westerville."

A counselor at Westerville South High School is working with two seniors who are 18 and struggling with homelessness and staying on the couches of friends, according to neighborhoodbridges.org.

Both students are working part-time jobs and helping to pay some of the costs of the households where they reside, and Neighborhood Bridges helped them through gift-card donations from the community, according to the website.

Bannister said Neighborhood Bridges has supported dozens of homeless high school students from all over central Ohio.

"I think it would be good for Westerville and other communities to talk about a long-term strategy," Bannister said. "Maybe there's some out-of-the-box, creative thinking.

"Our primary focus has been helping keep the kids fed and clothed so they can work toward their high school graduation."

Bannister said Neighborhood Bridges has provided direct care and support to more than 7,000 central Ohio children and families, serving 10 people per day since its launch.

Individuals or businesses who would like to help are encouraged to go to neighborhoodbridges.org or contact the charity via email at kindnessinwesterville@gmail.com.

Worthington pantry serves its neighbors

Worthington Schools has a list of resources it makes available to those in need, and one is the Worthington Resource Pantry, 6700 Huntley Road in Columbus, on Worthington's northeastern boundary.

Nick Linkenhoker, executive director of the organization, said it covers all six ZIP codes in the Worthington Schools boundaries, and it will serve a student or family if they cannot provide proof of address.

"We try to be cognizant of families that have housing problems," he said.

The pantry tracks usage – in 2017, it served 1,682 families and 33,882 people – but not specifically for homeless students, Linkenhoker said.

"We know that we have helped students," he said, but he couldn't say how many for sure based on a particular statistic.

In fact, Linkenhoker said, any statistics tracking homeless clients likely are inaccurate because many people will use a family member or friend's address as their own. People usually hesitate to say they are homeless, he said.

"We know that these figures are vastly unrepresentative," he said.

The school district plays a big role in connecting people to the pantry's services, Linkenhoker said.

"All the Worthington schools have our information and we work really closely with the school district, from elementary schools all the way up to district offices," he said. "The schools have been an incredible partner with us to help us get connected with the families who need our help."

The district also provides translation materials to help with students or families for whom English isn't a primary language, he said.

One service of the Worthington Resource Pantry is allowing shoppers to take into account what they can cook, such as someone who might own only a hot plate or a microwave, Linkenhoker said.

The pantry's resource center also offers advisory services and can provide assistance for housing, school clothes, school supplies and health care, he said. The resource center doesn't just "give people a phone number" but rather helps connect them one on one, he said.

"We try to help with any needs that someone who is food insecure might be facing," Linkenhoker said.

The resource pantry serves "neighbors," he emphasized, and the organization's website, worthingtonresourcepantry.org, says it engages the community "by serving our neighbors, and providing them with opportunities to serve one another."

Volunteers are welcome at the Worthington Resource Pantry, Linkenhoker said.

Children as young as 14 may volunteer, and families often volunteer together, he said. Prospective volunteers need only attend an orientation session listed on worthingtonresourcepantry.org.

The resource pantry also accepts financial donations to help maintain a continuous supply of food to share, Linkenhoker said.

"Financial donations are vital to keeping us going," he said.

Donations of food and personal-care items are appreciated, too.

"We can get those into the hands of community members who need it," Linkenhoker said.

ThisWeek reporters Alan Froman and Olivia Minnier contributed to this story.

mkuhlman@thisweeknews.com

@ThisWeekMarla