N.C., Lee County seeing increase of homeless students

Nov. 24, 2013 @ 05:01 AM

Middle school, as hormones lead to plenty of awkwardness, sports teams become more intense and classes start getting harder, is never an easy time. Try doing it without a steady place to live.

That's what the two sons of Vivian, a homeless woman in Lee County whom The Herald is only identifying by her first name to protect her and her childrens' privacy, are going through right now at West Lee Middle School.

Vivian and her four children — two at West Lee and two at B.T. Bullock Elementary School — are one of three families currently in Family Promise of Lee County, a program which runs a day center for homeless families and sends them to local churches to sleep at night. The three families there now have a combined eight children, seven of whom are school age.

The number of homeless students in North Carolina schools has skyrocketed recently, jumping 53 percent just from the 2010-11 to 2011-12 school years, according to a new report from the National Center for Homeless Education (NCHE) based at UNC-Greensboro.

North Carolina was one of just 10 states nationwide to increase by at least 20 percent — let alone 50 — in that time, and it was the only state in the south to do so.

Locally, the homeless student population has also steadily increased, from 142 in 2008-09 to 232 in 2012-13, a jump of 63 percent which has far outpaced the district's growth in overall enrollment. This school year, officials have already identified 138 homeless students and say that number will rise — and possibly even double — as the year goes on.

But the typical image of homelessness isn't what generally applies to these children. In North Carolina, fewer than 4 percent of homeless students actually sleep outdoors or in cars, according to the NCHE. About 10 percent are in shelters, and 9 percent are in motels. More than 77 percent are staying with friends or family temporarily.

"A lot of what we get is the mom, dad — whoever is taking care of them — get into drugs and then lose everything and either become homeless or put (the children) with friends or family when they go fix themselves," said Peggy Mann, one of three social workers employed by Lee County Schools to help students dealing with issues like homelessness.

School officials worry about homelessness for a variety of reasons, including the mental, physical and academic wellbeing of the child: Homeless students tend to score worse on standardized tests, especially reading tests, according to the NCHE, and the social workers said they're often missing key paperwork and need medical or psychiatric help.

"Just encouragement is a big thing because the kids might not be getting that at home — because the parent is absent or working three jobs or whatever else," Sarah Messer Allen, another school social worker, said.

Vivian, who said she became homeless after her mom died and she lost her job and then found out her remaining family wouldn't support her, said her two elementary school girls do fine in school, but that her middle school boys have started slacking off and running around with friends instead of concentrating on school. But even still, she said, she has seen improvement since entering Family Promise.

"They feel a lot better, a lot more settled, than they were before," when they were living in her car, Vivian said, adding that she's striving to get back into a place of her own: "If I had a permanent place, I could spend a lot more time getting them organized, back on task."

Another single mother in Family Promise center is Shannon, who has an infant son and two older boys at J.R. Ingram Elementary School. Like Vivian, she was evicted after becoming unemployed and unable to pay rent, and the family lived in her car for a few days before hearing about Family Promise.

"As an adult, it's hard (being homeless)," Shannon said. "But as a kid?"

Her children always used to get As and Bs in school, and although her eldest started letting his grades slip when they became homeless, she said, he's getting back on track now. Shannon credits to the support structure she found through Family Promise: Her boys were immediately enrolled in the Sanford-Lee County Boys and Girls Club, and every church they've stayed at has had volunteers come tutor.

"I'm not going to say the situation is easy because it's not easy," Shannon said. "And sometimes they get frustrated, but I get that. They're kids, and they don't always understand. But they do want to move on, just like I do."

Johnnye Waller, the district's director of student resources, said homeless students are held to the same academic standards as their peers, although they get breaks if reasonable — like if they can't get the supplies for a project or don't have internet access needed for an assignment. Schools also get federal funding specifically for homeless students, which is used for everything from school supplies to transportation or uniforms.

"It would disingenuous to say we can help people with all the finances they need," social worker Valerie Davenport said. "... But if someone comes in, (living) on disability (checks), and is $50 short for a hotel room, we'll try to help."

Waller said the community has also been great at providing for its homeless students in general, and Fredrika Cooke, executive director of Family Promise, said she's also glad for the support to her group specifically.

"If we can offer our homeless children more stability, it will make a big difference in their lives, hopefully keeping them from dropping out," Cooke said.