As a kid, I loved the first day of school. The evening before, on that bittersweet last night of summer, the nerves, excitement, and sense of possibility were overwhelming.

The preparation rituals for kids across the state probably go something like this: Lay out your best clothes. Pack a special lunch (mine was a peanut butter and banana sandwich). Stuff backpacks full of brand new notebooks and pencils. Scrub the last of the summer grime off. Then, climb into bed and do your best to fall asleep.

But for over 600 students in the Saint Paul Public Schools, those rituals were a bit more complicated earlier this month. Because, when you’re homeless, that’s how it goes. Life gets complicated.

In 2014, there will be more than 2,000 Saint Paul Public School students in shelters or doubled-up with other families in Saint Paul alone. That number doesn’t include all the homeless babies, homeless toddlers and homeless preschoolers.

According to Project REACH, Saint Paul Public Schools has already identified 606 students who are homeless, and about 330 of those students are newly homeless since last school year.

Over six hundred kids in Saint Paul schools are students by day and homeless by night.

Six hundred. And we’re just a few weeks into the school year.

Just stop and imagine that.

Shelter beds, couch hopping, maybe even the backseat of a car with Mom and your little brother. Oh, and don’t forget to do your homework.

We stop seeing child poverty when we become resigned to it, as if it were an inevitable fact of life. Of course, it’s not. We’ve just chosen that it’s okay.

In 1987, I was in the 4th grade. The Twins won their first World Series. Oliver North was fielding questions on the Iran Contra Affair. The sitcom thirtysomething debuted, and President Reagan told Mikhail Gorbachev to tear down that wall.

It was also the year of Wilder’s first significant shelter count. Any guess how many kids were in Saint Paul and Minneapolis homeless shelters in 1987?

Six.

We’ve given a green light to child homelessness over the past 25 years. The numbers tell the story. Child homelessness is not inevitable. It’s a choice, and we’ve chosen.

And so tonight, 606 Saint Paul kids (that we know of) will be students by day, and homeless by night.

Choosing Again, Choosing Differently

The good news is that we can choose again. Starting now. Through personal growth and awareness, by supporting existing direct service efforts, and by calling for systems change, we begin to make a different choice.

Call for public investment toward housing stability. The birth of homelessness as we know it has strong roots in public policy decisions of the 1980s. While there were certainly unintended consequences from past decisions, today’s state of poverty and homelessness is not accidental. It was and is a choice.

Thankfully, at least in Minnesota, we’re starting to do better. Elected officials from across the political spectrum and from every corner of the state are displaying real leadership in responding to housing instability among their constituents.

Governor Dayton and the Minnesota legislature made serious investments in housing and homeless services this year, increasing funding by over $33 million in the current biennium.

These are simply numbers on paper today, but tomorrow they might provide a life altering intervention for one of those 606 students in Saint Paul who are students by day and homeless by night.

Patrick Ness serves as the Public Policy Director with the Amherst H. Wilder Foundation. Patrick previously served as a family advocate and shelter manager at a 92 family homeless shelter in Minneapolis, before transitioning to public policy work with Catholic Charities’ Office for Social Justice and the Minnesota Coalition for the Homeless. Above: A capacity crowd attends a hearing on the Homeless Youth Act during the 2013 Legislative session.

This post was published on October 3, 2013 on Wilder Foundation’s blog.