Student homelessness high in WNC
For most kids, this is the season of anticipation, a magical time of year marked by stuffed turkeys, Christmas cookies, presents under the tree — and the promise of some long, lazy breaks from classes and homework.
But some children don’t have any Thanksgiving feast to look forward to, or cause to celebrate days off of school. Statewide, 1.6 percent of public school students were homeless according to 2014-15 data, with a higher rate of 2.5 percent nationwide. But parts of Western North Carolina exceed both rates.
In 2014-15, Haywood County had the largest percentage of homeless students of the four counties in The Smoky Mountain News’ coverage area, with 3.94 percent, followed by Jackson County with 3.53 percent, Swain with 1.89 percent and Macon with 0.45 percent.
Jackson and Haywood counties had slightly lower numbers in 2018-19 — 3.08 percent and 3.45 percent, respectively — while the figures at Swain and Macon grew over the intervening years, to 2.50 percent and 1.70 percent, respectively. According to homeless services coordinators in these counties, the true number of homeless students is likely higher than reported.
“There is a fairly large degree of difficulty in identifying students and families who are defined as homeless for educational purposes because of confidentiality,” said Regina Gilchrist Ash, Title I director for Swain County. “The stigma that families might see, feel and deal with thinking of themselves as homeless is often hard to overcome.”
“Particularly in a mountain rural culture, people want to take care of their own — and they don’t always,” added Laura Dills, homeless liaison for Jackson County. “I feel confident we have more students than those numbers who are homeless.”
Homeless figures are based on reports from teachers, parents and students, as well as on the results of a survey students receive at the beginning of each school year, asking about their living situation. But families don’t always self-report, and when their status changes throughout the year they don’t always update the school on their situation.
Swain County just implemented the survey concept in the 2018-19 school year, and its census of homeless students more than doubled in that year, rising from 20 in 2017-18 to 49 in 2018-19.
For the purposes of the public schools, “homelessness” has a broader meaning than being forced to sleep in a tent or on a concrete sidewalk. The McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act applies the term to students who lack a “fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence.” It includes kids who are living in a hotel or motel, sleeping on someone else’s couch or living in an unsheltered location like the underside of a bridge or a car.
Until the 2016-17 school year, the definition also included kids in foster care. Haywood County saw its homeless student census drop substantially after that population was removed from the count.
“A lot of our number of foster care was due to Broyhill (Children’s Home), so Jackson, Macon, etc. may not be as affected because they don’t have a large children’s home like we do,” said Aleasa Glance, student services director in Haywood County.
Between 2015-16 and 2016-17, Haywood’s count fell from 408 to 281, while Swain’s dropped from 31 to seven. Macon and Jackson actually grew, with Macon’s census increasing from 41 to 47 and Jackson’s from 77 to 103. However, the 77 figure in Jackson was an aberration from its typical census — that low number could have been due to some external factors such as a change in personnel, said Dills. The 103 homeless students identified in 2016-17 represented a significantly lower number than the 127 identified in 2014-15.
For most families, homelessness is a temporary experience — the census indicates the number of students who were homeless at any point in the school year, even if their housing situation stabilized by the end of it.
Each school in Jackson County has a ‘comfort closet’ stocked with hygiene products for students who need them. JCPS photo
As defined by the law, homelessness is always related to economic hardship — a person who’s temporarily staying with a friend between selling a home and buying another one would not be considered homeless, because that person would have the means to seek other shelter should the friend kick them out. A family that’s staying with friends because they got evicted and would otherwise be sleeping in their car, however, would be considered homeless.
That’s the type of situation that applies to most homeless youth in Jackson County — 60 percent of the 110 students classified as homeless in 2018-19 were doubled up with another family or moving from place to place due to economic hardship. Another 18 percent were living in a hotel or motel; 5 percent moved into the district after fleeing natural disaster elsewhere, 3 percent were living in a camper or a tent due to economic hardship and 1 percent were living without shelter.
Another 13 percent were tagged as “unaccompanied homeless youth,” meaning they’re not being taken care of by a parent or guardian. That’s a population that especially concerns Dills and other school system employees who work with homeless students. During the last school year Dills once worked with four children ranging from second through eighth grade whose mother left them on their own and didn’t come back — the children lived with an older sibling last year but didn’t return to school this year, so nobody in the school system knows where they are now.
The hardest thing is “when they’re just gone,” said Dana Tucker, behavioral specialist for Jackson County Schools and a social worker in the system for 24 years.
“In your brain and your heart, you take them home,” she said.
Reasons and results
It’s difficult to lose touch with these students, but it’s not an unusual occurrence. Often, families struggling with homelessness are more mobile than most, moving from place to place as economic circumstances dictate.
“A lot of it is just lack of a full-time established job for a parent,” said Dills. “So the parent is moving around from job to job, or the parent doesn’t make enough money so they get kicked out of where they’re living. They get evicted, but they may not be on the path to get HUD assistance or Rapid Re-housing assistance, so they just fall through the cracks. We have a lot of drug use among parents. That’s where we see a lot of our students who are unaccompanied homeless youth.”
It’s not always about drugs, though.
“We see a lot of parents who are really good parents,” said Dills. “They’re trying to meet the needs of their children, but they can’t ever get ahead.”
Moving into an apartment, for example, requires a deposit as well as first month’s rent and utility hookup costs. For a family living on the edge, financially speaking, a minor emergency like a broken car battery or a week off of work due to sickness or injury can wipe out a savings account.
For children, lack of consistency is one of the biggest challenges of homelessness, and it makes school hard.
“The absence of routine is the greatest barrier and the hardest for us to control, because they are literally trying to survive,” said Dills. “Research shows that when basic needs are not being met, it is hard to pay attention to academic needs. Basic needs become the priority.”
That fact might make it easy to assume that homeless students are more likely to drop out or otherwise fail to graduate than are their counterparts from more stable environments. But that is not the case, said Dills.
“One of the things that I always find very interesting and pleasant in a way is our students who are homeless either have excellent attendance or they have very, very poor attendance. There’s not much middle ground,” she said. “The majority of our homeless students actually have really great attendance, and I think that’s because school is a stable, warm environment with food and nurturing people for them, so they want to come.”
The graduation rate for homeless students in Jackson County is typically north of 90 percent, said Dills, which is about the same as that of the general student population.
However, these students do need more support than the general population to thrive and reach their potential after graduation. That’s why school counselors are so important, especially when it comes to helping homeless high schoolers apply for college scholarships.
“These people are really vital in their lives, because even if they’re still living with their parents, their parents are just trying to provide basic day-to-day needs,” said Dills.
Sometimes, students need more than just a few meetings with the counselor. Dills recalled one student who was only two months away from high school graduation but had to leave home for safety reasons. The student was too old for foster care and ended up sleeping on the street. The student ended up getting invited to stay with a sympathetic school counselor while community members rallied to make a deposit on a rental unit that was close enough to town that the student could walk to work. With help from the counselor, the student created a budget, graduated from high school and secured an internship.
Swain County also saw a situation recently that required a greater community response. At the beginning of the school year, the school system found out about a family with young and infant children living in a borrowed tent. Swain County Schools worked with the Bryson City United Methodist Restoration House to raise money to buy a small camper trailer, find a campground to park it and provide food and clothing.
While special cases call for special fundraising efforts, school systems have ongoing programs in place to help students who are homeless or otherwise in need, as well as partnerships with other community organizations that assist families.
Jackson County, for example, holds its Stuff the Bus fundraiser each year to collect food, hygiene items and money to help students in need — this year’s donation drop-off will be 6 to 9 p.m. Dec. 6, 7, 13 and 14 at the Jarrett Memorial Baptist Church in Dillsboro.
Organizations in various counties donate prepackaged food that students can take home to eat over holiday breaks, and schools also do their best to provide hygiene items, food and school supplies to students in dire need.
The more secure homeless students can be in their access to these basic needs during what is doubtless a turbulent time in their lives, the greater their chance of success academically. And while there is no silver bullet to breaking the cycle of poverty, education is perhaps the closest thing.
“I feel very strongly that education is an equalizer,” said Dills, “so when you have at-risk families, at-risk students, giving them the best access to a good education is what can make them have the same opportunities and options as their peers who grow up in higher-income homes.”