Leonard Crewe is living on the edge, just one lucky break from earning a high school degree or a bad fall from slipping back into the homelessness that has seen him attend different schools each of the past three years.
If things go his way — and that wasn't a certainty last week — he'll begin classes at Richmond's John Marshall High School next week.
"He needs to make some grown-up decisions," said Michael Sanders, who with his wife, A.J., runs a program that helps teens such as Crewe find success in a world full of peril. Crewe has had trouble settling into the Sanderses' program, and he and they said there was no guarantee he would make it through the year with a place he can call home.
Crewe isn't alone in facing school from an ever-changing address. The state counted 8,742 homeless students last school year, an increase of more than 3,700 in just five years. The numbers could be deceptively low — and the challenges much larger — if what happens in central Virginia happens across the state.
The Richmond school system counts nearly twice as many homeless students as show up in the state count because its in-house tally grows throughout the school year, and the numbers are larger in neighboring counties, too.
"This is a systemic problem," said Mary Herrington, who's in charge of the social work program for Richmond Public Schools. "Our population is the same, but the numbers have grown because of the bad economy."
There's a broad definition of "homeless student," and who counts and how they're counted proves the difficulty of identifying students who qualify.
Homeward, a planning and coordinating agency for homeless services in the Richmond region, does a survey every summer of children living in shelters, and this year's count showed a 20 percent decrease from the year before. But not every homeless student lives in a shelter, and getting an all-encompassing count of a highly transient, ever-changing population is nearly impossible.
The guiding document is the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act of 1987, a piece of federal legislation that includes sections about students and the services to which they're entitled.
By the McKinney-Vento standard, homeless means the "lack of a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence." It includes a range of housing challenges, from having no housing at all to living in shelters to sharing space in someone else's home. The act also includes provisions to make it easier for homeless families to get their children into school — proof of residency is not required — and it includes language that guarantees students their seats even if they move outside their school's attendance boundary.
But theory and reality differ, and homeless students tend to have worries that keep them from delving deep into federal regulations.
"What homeless means is students have to struggle before they even get to school," said Michael Sanders, whose Richmond-based program called Beating the Odds teaches life skills to housing-challenged teens, typically those coming out of the foster care system.
"Just getting to school is a challenge," A.J. Sanders said. "It's not that homeless students don't want to go to school. But if the school is on one side of town and they're living on the other and they don't have bus fare, they're not going to make it."
By federal statute, school systems have to provide that transportation, but not everyone knows that. Even getting an accurate count of students is difficult.
The Virginia Department of Education includes a homeless category in its annual count of students. For the 2011-12 school year, the state identified 8,742 homeless students. That was the third straight year the count went up, increasing from 4,901 in the 2008-09 school year.
Richmond ranked second to Fairfax County — which has nearly eight times as many students overall — last school year, with 807 homeless students, nearly twice its total from the year before. Chesterfield County was third, with 410 students, and Henrico County was fifth, with 346.
Cletisha Lovelace, a spokeswoman for the Richmond school system, said the in-house count last year was 1,509. The difference from the state count, she said, was because the city keeps a rolling tally that captures students throughout the year while the state count is a moment-in-time assessment.
"We were still identifying students the last week of the school year," said Alia Butler, a school system social worker responsible for sharing McKinney-Vento information with teachers, students and staff at Armstrong, Huguenot and George Wythe high schools and helping students find the resources they need to stay in school.
Although homelessness and poverty often are associated with the inner city, the problem has spread beyond Richmond.
Henrico ranked in the top three statewide in the number of homeless students for four straight years before dropping to fifth last year.
Chesterfield was in the top five last year, and rural places such as Suffolk and Wise County have been on the chart in recent years, too.
Lamont Bagby, a School Board member in Henrico, said he has struggled with ways to better help students who struggle so much to help themselves.
"We need to offer more wraparound services," he said. "We can do more."
When those students don't receive the help they need, he said, everyone suffers. Poor attendance leads to poor grades, which leads to poor post-school prospects.
Tyrone Nelson, a member of the Henrico Board of Supervisors and the pastor of Sixth Mount Zion Baptist Church in Richmond's Jackson Ward neighborhood, said the issue was complicated, especially with children stuck in the middle.
"Those kids didn't ask for this," he said. "This is what they got. It's a tough question. On the one hand, the government does have the responsibility to look after its citizens. But on the other hand, you have to learn to take care of yourself. But with children, it's all different."
Bagby and Nelson are focusing on a small-scale solution this year. They each have committed to mentoring three to five high school students — Bagby at Henrico High, Nelson at Varina — and helping them past graduation.
"It's not enough to just get them there," Bagby said. "We need to get them ready for what's next in life, whether it's the military, a career or college. That's the goal."
Bagby and Nelson are not alone in finding ways to help the area's homeless youth.
There are formal programs, such as the one run by the Sanderses, which helps teens develop the skills they'll need to live on their own, and the HomeAgain Espigh Shelter, which provides emergency housing with on-site tutoring for children.
And there are countless small, community-driven programs, such as one run by Natalie May, whose outreach work with Bon Air United Methodist Church has turned into an ongoing series of skill seminars for students who were homeless last year. Every Monday this summer, May and some of her friends have been working with six students. The teens have learned necessities, including tips on banking from a Wells Fargo adviser. And they've learned a little something about the world outside their own, including what to do with a jar of wheat germ (sprinkle it on microwave-friendly Rice Krispies treats).
Among May's students are Adrienna Alexander, a rising senior at Wythe; and Troy Valentine, who graduated from Armstrong in June and last week landed a job selling Fords at a local dealership, pending procurement of photo identification.
Both have moved repeatedly since entering high school — both to Texas and back, coincidentally — and are now in places where they share accommodations with more people than beds.
Alexander is living in an apartment she shares with at least 11 family members and friends.
"I'm looking forward to going back to school," she said. "But I'm not looking forward to the challenges."
Something as seemingly simple as finding a quiet place to study is hard, she said.
Valentine knows that drill, too. He lives with seven family members in east Richmond — "We don't all have beds, but we all find a place to sleep," he said — and has to leave when he wants to clear his mind.
"If I need to get away, I like to go for a joyride," he said.
But no one in his house has a car, so Valentine's idea of a joyride is more utilitarian than most.
"I ride the bus," he said. "I can go to Willow Lawn and back. That gives me time to think and to write."
For the moment, those two have something Leonard Crewe does not: a taste of stability.
If Crewe, who turns 18 today, starts his senior year next week at John Marshall High School, he'll be entering his fourth school in his fourth school district.
After spending time at Prince George, Petersburg and Chesterfield's James River high schools, he's bracing himself for life in Richmond.
"It's going to be hard this year," he said. "It's hard to figure out who you can rely on."
The hardest part, he said, is making himself ask for help.
"That's tough for every kid who's grown up like Leonard," said Michael Sanders. "You not only have to ask for help, you have to be willing to listen. They've had to prove that they're self-reliant. Recognizing you need help is not easy."
The city of Richmond has had a homeless education plan since 1997, and in the years since it was created, school officials have honed, tweaked and otherwise worked to perfect an approach to making sure homeless students start their school days on as equal a footing as possible.
"Richmond has a highly mobile population," said Herrington, the school system's head social worker. "Some of these families that are doubled-up don't even realize they're homeless (and eligible for services)."
She and Victoria Oakley, the school system's chief academic officer, said there was a plan for numerous services, such as tutoring programs, food pantries and arranging transportation to keep students in their original schools.
School systems pay some of the costs, such as for transportation, but community organizations also participate heavily, donating real dollars and in-kind goods and services. Determining the economic impact of homeless students, school officials said, was nearly impossible.
In recent years, the effort has been paying off. In June, 36 homeless students graduated, and 23 of them are headed to college this fall.
But there are still huge challenges.
"There's a shortage of shelter space," Herrington said. "And there are no shelters in Richmond for unaccompanied youth. There are children 17 or 18 who are still in high school but no longer have a parent or guardian and who need protective services. But there's no emergency shelter for them."
Finding homes and help is essential, said Butler, the school-based social worker.
"Everyone knows the only way to escape poverty is through an education," she said. "But a lot of these kids have never been around anyone who understands that."
That's where people such as the Sanderses, Bagby and Nelson come in.
"This wasn't complicated," Nelson said of the mentoring program he set up with Bagby. "We spent maybe 10 minutes talking about what we wanted to do, then we did it. When there's a need, you find a solution."
Crewe is learning that lesson now.
"I think I'm ready to stay," he said Tuesday when presented with the option of switching group homes or becoming homeless.