School system battles student homelessness

Published 12:08 am Saturday, November 15, 2014

As the year nears its end, many children are focused on the holiday season and the food and gifts that come along with it. 

Others worry about where they will sleep each night.

“In my head, when I thought of homeless people, I thought of big cities and people living under a bridge or in a doorway with a box,” said Kathy Varner, Decatur County Department of Education federal programs director, “and that is not what homeless looks like here in our area.”

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Varner, who is the system homeless coordinator liaison, presented information about Decatur County’s homeless students to the Board of Education at Thursday’s work session.

As of November 13, 62 Decatur County students have been identified as homeless at some point since August.

Under the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, which is a federal legislative response to homelessness, the school system is required to remove barriers for enrollment and retention of homeless students.

“We are required to immediately enroll a student, even if they don’t have the documentation that we typically require a student to have as they enroll,” Varner said.

“Homeless” can refer to a person living in a shelter, vehicle, motel, campground or “doubled up” with another family. Most of the homeless children and families the Decatur County system sees are doubled up.

The system is required to identify homeless students or students who may become homeless. Each school in the system has a designated homeless liaison that assists with this throughout the year. A student housing questionnaire is required as part of enrollment in Decatur County schools and is also sent home with each student at the beginning of every year.

The questionnaire asks if a student’s living situation is temporary or if he or she is living in the home of someone other than the legal guardian.

The system has seen an increase in homeless students in recent years, which Varner said is due to better identification methods.

“We are doing a much better job at identifying people and identifying students and families that are homeless,” Varner said, “and I also think that our economic situation has affected it. People have lost their jobs or lost their homes, and we see that in these numbers here in Decatur County.”

When a student is identified as homeless, the system reaches out to the family to provide information about affordable housing, outreach programs and health services. Then, the student’s teachers are informed of his or her situation so the teacher can help in any way.

“One thing that we are really working on is monitoring the progress of those students and making sure that we intervene,” Varner said. “The [liaison] keeps a spreadsheet where they keep data about attendance and grades. It’s a way for us, every nine weeks, to lay our eyes on how that kid’s doing.”

Older students are more challenging, Varner said, because they are harder to identify.

“You’ve got a kid who is still in school, but they’re deemed homeless in many cases because they’re couch surfing,” Varner said. “They may stay with one family for a little bit, or maybe an aunt will let them stay for a while.”

These students face bigger issues than just housing. They lack money, family support, access to hygiene items, stability and emotional wellbeing.

“Last year we had a couple of cases at the high school, and those students were in this situation. The high school allowed them to come in early, and they used their facilities to take showers, and they also have those classrooms that are set up with washers and dryers. They allowed them to use the laundry facilities, because that’s what that kid needed to stay in school.”

The system is on the final year of a three-year grant it received to help cover costs. The money goes toward school supplies, hygiene items, education material, replacement documents such as social security cards and transportation.

Transportation is a big chunk of the costs, because the system tries to keep students in the school they begin the year at, despite their housing situation. If a student becomes homeless during the year, transfers and altered bus routes will be used to make sure that student can attend the school he or she started the year at.

“Everybody knows the best thing for that child is to stay back in the school that they started, where they know their teacher, they love their teacher, they have their friends,” Varner said. “The last thing they need is another disruption. That’s a big part of what we do.”