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Social workers say student homelessness on the rise

The number of homeless school children in Haywood County has risen by nearly 20 percent this year compared to last.

The county uses the definition of homelessness contained in the McKinney-Vento Act — any individual who lacks a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence. That could mean that the children are staying with a relative temporarily, in a hotel, sleeping in a car or at a shelter.


Last year, the number of homeless children in the Haywood County school system topped out at 201. But this year, “We already have 240; we have seven I found out about in the last few days,” said social worker Michelle Mull at a Board of Education meeting earlier this month. “We will probably reach close to 300 by the end (of the school year).”

While some are homeless because of financial problems, many are affected by physical  abuse and substance abuse. Mull and three other social workers spend their days in the schools concerned about the children’s lives outside of the class and how they might help.

Mull painted a wretched picture. Imagine, she said, you are in eighth grade and had a great day at school. The classmate you like smiled at you, and you can’t wait to tell your mom. But when you get home, your mother is crying, Mull said. Then you hear the sound of your stepdad’s truck. Your mom hands you dinner and tells you to go eat in your room.

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You hear your stepdad and mom fighting, so you hide in your closet. Then you hear glass breaking and a thud.

“You know that is your mama’s head going against the wall,” Mull said.

When you hear another noise, you start praying it’s not your stepdad coming for you. The footsteps are getting closer and closer. The door to your closet opens, and it’s your mom who is bleeding and has a black eye. She tells you, “You have one minute to put whatever you can in your backpack, and we are leaving.”

In all the panic, you grab your cell phone or a stuffed animal, but you forget your homework. The next day when the teacher asks you for assignment, you make up an excuse.

“You are too ashamed to say you slept in your car last night,” Mull said.

Homeless students spend the day worrying about where they will stay that night or what they will eat. Schoolwork is an afterthought.

“If they are homeless, they don’t care about their eighth grade test,” Mull said.

The Haywood County school board members agreed with Mull’s assessment. If they found themselves in a similar situation as a child, school would be their last worry.

Chuck Francis, chairman of the Board of Education, applauded the social workers’ efforts to help the homeless school children and bring awareness to the issue.

“I can’t imagine the day-to-day stress you face,” Francis said.

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