EDITORIAL: Jump in homeless students alarming for North Carolina

Nov. 27, 2013 @ 05:00 AM

A new report from the National Center for Homeless Education indicates that the number of homeless students enrolled in public schools in North Carolina has jumped significantly.

The NCHE, based at UNC-Greensboro, says the number of students in our state considered homeless increased by 53 percent from school year 2010-11 to school year 2011-12, from about 18,000 two years ago to more than 27,500 last school year.

The numbers are alarming. While the national increase of the number of homeless students was just under 10 percent in that same timeframe, a total of 10 states nationwide showed an increase of 20 percent or more.

North Carolina’s staggering jump was, by far, tops in the South.

Officials in Lee County warned earlier this year that the number of students it considered homeless had topped the 200 mark. In the latest study, that number grew from 142 in 2008-09 to 232 this past school year. In the current school year, officials have already identified 138 homeless students, but suggested that the number may ultimately double as we move into 2014.

Most NCHE data suggests that fewer than 4 percent of those students considered “homeless” by definition are actually “unsheltered,” a definition which ranges from living in cars, parks or campgrounds, to taking refuge in abandoned buildings or substandard housing. Just fewer than 20 percent are living in either hotels or motels or in shelters, while the balance — about 77 percent — are “doubled up,” defined as sharing the housing of other persons because of a loss of housing, economic hardship, or a similar reason

But the fact that the vast majority of these kids aren’t living in the streets — or sleeping in cars — isn’t relevant. What is relevant, and problematic, is that these students’ home life is to tenuous, so fractured and so debilitating that school and getting an education are simply distractions as they fight for survival. Lee County Schools employs three social workers just to help students deal with these kinds of issues, and although it’s probably impossible to gauge the broader implications of the issue, the impact in the classroom is measurable: homeless students, as you’d expect, score worse on standardized tests and often don’t get needed medical attention if they fall ill.

The cause? There are a myriad of reasons families lose homes, especially in this economy, but Peggy Mann, one of the aforementioned social workers, said she and her co-workers often see parents or caretakers fall into drug abuse. Lives fall apart. The children suffer.

Thankfully, programs like Family Promise — which brings churches together to feed and provide short-term shelter to families struggling with homelessness — and other religious and social needs organizations are there to stand in the gap for many of these children when they need it most.

But given the increasing numbers, it’s clear there will be more suffering, heartache and misery for hundreds of children in Lee County. Any way you look at it, it’s not a pretty picture.