Invisible population is not ignored
Often referred to as the “invisible population,” the homeless are not limited to adults but also includes school-aged children who are often victims of circumstance.
Durham Public Schools works with displaced students by offering an anchor in education during an otherwise turbulent time.
Jackie Love, homeless liaison for DPS, said that, in many cases, the stigma of being homeless keeps families from seeking available services.
“You cannot look at a student and tell that they’re homeless. The parents don’t want the school district to know they’re homeless,” she said. “They’re afraid of the Department of Social Services.”
Michael Becketts, Durham County Department of Social Services director, explained that his agency works in partnership with DPS to prevent homelessness among families as much as possible by connecting people with services.
“They (DSS social workers) can work up to six weeks with a family to reduce the circumstances causing the family crisis,” Becketts said.
There are 11 DSS social workers working in 22 public schools in Durham County, Becketts said, with a 12th social worker assisting with the district’s homeless services.
Able to provide in-home services and preventative services, DSS social workers help make sure they know that they have “the resources of the agency at their disposal.”
“They (DSS social workers) are bringing all of the services of the agency with them,” he added.
Homeless students are referred to as “displaced.” Their displacement can come to light in several ways, Love said.
“Sometimes the teacher tells us, they notice different signs; the student has increased absences, then we find out in truancy court that the student is displaced but a lot of times the parents call me,” she said. “Sometimes we find out that students are catching four to five city buses across town so they can go to their school.”
Addressing the needs of displaced students falls under the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, legislation that requires school districts to remove all barriers to a homeless student’s academic success.
As an example, in a situation of domestic violence, the fleeing parent may leave behind records that are normally required for enrollment in school. Under McKinney-Vento, the student can be immediately enrolled in school without those records.
Signed into law in 1987 by President Ronald Reagan, the McKinney-Vento Act is named after Reps. Stewart McKinney, the act’s chief sponsor, and Bruce Vento, a lead supporter of the bill since its inception.
McKinney-Vento also mandates that displaced students be provided with transportation to their original school.
“Some families move five to six times a year and each time they may move into an area that would normally require the change schools,” Love said. “We make sure that they go to their original school.”
Love added that because of sometimes constant moving, students can be anywhere from four to six months behind in school. Tutors are provided for these students.
McKinney-Vento is funded through Title I dollars, covering the cost of tutors and running the after school program, summer camp and transportation for displaced students to help keep them on track.
A program called Backpack Buddies provides meals for displaced children over the weekend. Various community organizations fill backpacks with food that’s given to students on Fridays. The students bring the empty backpacks back on Monday so they can be refilled for the next weekend.
“School is also important for eating,” Love said. “Sometimes the meal they get at school is the only one they get that day.”
During the 2011-12 school year, 829 students in DPS identified as displaced.
“This doesn’t include the students we don’t know about,” Love said. “That number is actually low and the numbers rise every year.
Everything from personal hygiene items, clothing and school supplies to mental health services, glasses and referrals for shelter waiting lists are provided through Love and her colleagues.
Love said that there is a general misconception about what homelessness looks like.
“I’m reminded every day when I talk to a parent that anyone can become homeless,” she said.
Parents become homeless for numerous reasons, Love said, including underemployment or the loss of a job, lack of affordable housing, a house fire, substance abuse, mental health issues or domestic violence.
Medical costs can be another often overlooked factor.
A good number of displaced students graduate and are promoted each year, Love said, but she was unable to give a specific number. She added that high school seniors who are displaced get help with applying for college.
Despite the continued successes of displaced students, student reactions to their displacement vary.
“Some are really angry; some children you’d never be able to tell,” Love said. “The younger children don’t understand, so they just see it as staying with a relative, or if they’re in a shelter having a large sleepover every night.
“Some are withdrawn and some experience trauma because of their displacement.”
Love explained that displaced high school students sometimes become couch surfers, staying with one friend after another until they secure more permanent housing. Some do this throughout their entire high school career, she added.
Middle school students tend to deal more so with the related self-image issues that accompany displacement. School bus pick-ups can alert a student’s peers of their living situation.
“So before they even get to school they already have some anger built up because they were picked up at a shelter or hotel,” Love said
Donations are accepted to help displaced students. General personal hygiene items and school supplies are readily accepted. For other items, Love asks that people call her office at 919-560-3927 first to ensure that needed items are donated.