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Rochester nonprofit to expand supportive programming for homeless students

This stock image shows a student holding a pencil and taking an examination.
Adobe Stock
This stock image shows a student holding a pencil and taking an examination.

A local nonprofit that serves homeless youths in the Rochester City School District is looking to expand its program for the next school year.

Spirit NYS is opening up seven more slots for students who are experiencing homelessness and housing instability. It currently serves 48 students.

The organization provides mentorship and monthly donations that include things like hygiene products, clothes, and blankets. It also includes a bimonthly stipend of $75.

“It gives the kid a chance to make some decisions and form some financial planning skills,” said CEO John Thompson. “And he gets himself a sense of independence.”

The organization received a recent wave of donations totaling $12,500 from Constellation Energy, NextGen Rochester and other donors. It received an additional $28,000 from ESL Charitable Foundation in early June. A set portion from an anonymous donor goes directly to the cost of graduation regalia, prom tickets, and yearbooks for 24 graduating seniors.

“It may be one of the few times they feel like they're as good as the rest of the students; they can dress nicely and be part of the mainstream,” said Mary Thompson, co-chair of the organization’s board of directors. “So, we try to empower them.”

Going forward, Thompson said the goal is to prevent students from dropping out of high school. He said the organization is also looking for partners to address homeless students’ needs during the transition after high school.

“There’s a huge gap where the student graduates high school and he leaves a structured environment where he gets a lot of help,” he said. “Now he's in an unstructured environment where he gets no help.”

Spirit NYS currently serves just under 3% of the total number of homeless students in the city district accounted for in state data from last school year. There were 1,755 homeless students in the district during the 2022-23 school year, according to state data.

This year, the district’s executive director of student support services said there were more than 2,000 homeless and housing-insecure students as of February.

Thompson said while she expects they will continue to be a smaller operation, the impact the program has had on the students they’ve served is anything but small.

“They're functioning not as adolescents but more as adults,” Thompson said. “It makes it hard for them because they see around them what other students have, and they aren't part of that world. They have to step aside from that and play the role that will keep them alive.”

Noelle E. C. Evans is WXXI's Murrow Award-winning Education reporter/producer.