SOUTH PORTLAND — An unexpected and significant increase in the number of homeless students in the city’s public schools this year has officials cautiously budgeting for a similar situation in the coming year.

The increase is linked to Portland’s family shelter, which saw its own numbers rise last year and regularly used the Maine Motel on Route 1 in South Portland for overflow temporary housing.

The spike coincides with an apparent decrease in the number of homeless students in Portland schools and a stepped-up effort by the Maine Department of Education to identify and assist homeless students across the state.

Since July 1, South Portland schools have enrolled 107 students who were considered homeless under the federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act of 1987, said Assistant Superintendent Kathryn Germani. That’s up from 74 students in 2013-14 and 40 students in 2012-13.

Most of the increase turned out to be temporary and was attributed to students who came from outside the district, including children of recent immigrants. Unlike in the past, when South Portland’s homeless student population tended to level off each fall, this school year the number kept increasing through February.

“We came back from Christmas break and there (was paperwork for) five more families on my desk,” Germani said. “It’s hard to plan in advance when you don’t know how many students will show up at your door.”

It also was challenging for the staff and homeless students involved, Germani said, but the district did its best to welcome the growing number of newcomers and accommodate their learning needs.

The number of families coming from Portland’s family shelter to South Portland schools has increased from two families in 2012-13, to 11 families in 2013-14, to about 30 families so far this year, Germani said.

A total of 61 students came through the family shelter and lived at the Maine Motel for several weeks before their families were placed in apartments paid for by Portland’s General Assistance Program or other welfare programs, said Jeff Tardif, shelter director.

LONGER SHELTER STAYS

While the shelter experienced a 9 percent decrease in the number of individuals served in 2014, it saw a 26 percent increase in the number of “bed nights” as the average length of stay increased from 34 days to 47 days, according to the shelter’s annual report. A lack of family-size apartments led to longer stays at the shelter and greater demand for overflow accommodations at area motels.

The Maine Motel has been an ideal place to house families while they wait for apartments because it’s locally owned, charges a low rate and offers clean, safe, well-monitored accommodations, Tardif said. The shelter had no families housed in motels last week.

Juned Dhamdachhawala, live-in manager at the 23-room Maine Motel, which is owned by his family, said he has developed a good working relationship with the shelter staff.

“Sometimes they get busy and they call me,” Dhamdachhawala said. “I charge the same for everybody – $60 a night, maybe a little more during the busy season.”

Some families housed at the motel have been South Portland residents, some have been immigrants, and some have come from out of state, Dhamdachhawala said. Shelter case workers “keep an eye on the families so they don’t do anything wrong,” and he checks the rooms daily as well.

Many of the 61 students from the family shelter were members of immigrant families that fled war-torn Central African countries, such as Burundi and Rwanda, and came here on visas seeking asylum, according to Germani and Tardif.

The impact was felt mostly at Skillin Elementary School, where the influx added 42 students over several months, Germani said. Many of the students were English-language learners, so the district added an education technician at a yearly cost of $40,000, including salary and benefits, and tapped $15,000 in a Title I account to cover additional tutoring and supplies. The students also increased the district’s transportation costs.

If South Portland schools experience a similar or greater influx from Portland’s family shelter in the coming school year, the district may have to reallocate staff members to work with English-language learners, Germani said.

IDENTIFYING HOMELESS STUDENTS

Students are considered homeless if they “lack a fixed, adequate and regular nighttime residence,” under the McKinney-Vento law. That includes children whose parents have moved in with family members or friends after being evicted, and high school students who are living on their own and “couch surfing” from one friend’s house to the next.

At this point, there are 47 homeless students in South Portland schools, most of whom were living in the district before they became homeless, Germani said. Nine are from immigrant families: five at the elementary school, three in middle school and one at the high school.

Maine school districts counted a total of 2,070 homeless students in 2012-13, 1,962 in 2013-14 and 1,701 so far in the school year ending June 30. Homeless student counts in previous years – about 1,000 in 2010-11 and 1,500 in 2011-12 – are considered incomplete and unreliable, said Samantha Warren, spokeswoman for the Maine Department of Education.

While homeless student populations tend to be larger near urban areas, numbers can vary widely from year to year and spike following disasters, such as floods, hurricanes or the series of arson fires that destroyed several apartment buildings in Lewiston in 2012-13. In that city, the number of homeless students has fallen from 145 in 2012-13, to 101 in 2013-14, to 72 so far this school year.

In Portland, Maine’s largest school district, the homeless student population has fallen from 284 students in 2012-13, to 251 students in 2013-14, to 179 students so far this school year.

Maine has stepped up efforts to better identify and provide assistance to homeless students in recent years, bolstered by $230,000 in federal funding this year for homeless student programs, such as tutoring and counseling. Most of the money was distributed to Portland, Lewiston, Westbrook and Regional School Unit 1 (Bath) through competitive grants, said Jacinda Goodwin, Maine’s homeless education coordinator.

Homelessness can be extremely disruptive for students, Goodwin said, especially when it’s complicated by other issues, including parents’ unemployment, addiction, incarceration, physical and mental health problems, abuse or neglect.

“Our goal is to ensure that students who are experiencing homelessness have stability in their school lives and can be academically successful as other housed students,” Goodwin said. “A good foundation in school can help a child overcome the challenges of homelessness.”

Jessica Ndayishimiye’s family lived at the Maine Motel for about a month after arriving in Portland on Dec. 28. Her home country, Burundi, was no longer safe for her father, a government worker, her mother, a secretary, and their five children.

Now, the family has an apartment in Portland, where she attends Deering High School. Ndayishimiye, who speaks five languages, including English and French, said she and her family are grateful for the warm reception they have received in local schools.

“It was very important,” she said. “I want to get my diploma and go to college for child care. Because you get to help other people when you know how.”