Nearly 10,000 homeless students enrolled in TN public schools - WMC Action News 5 - Memphis, Tennessee

Nearly 10,000 homeless students enrolled in TN public schools

By LOLA ALAPO
The Knoxville News Sentinel

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) - The hardest part of Jessie Cox's week isn't getting up at 6 a.m. every day. Nor is it getting on a school bus by 6:30 a.m. for the almost two-hour ride from West Knox County to Halls Elementary School in North Knox County.

The hardest part of the 8-year-old's week? "Moving from church to church, because we have to pack everything," the third-grader said.

Jessie has no home. She, her brother, Christian, 12, and her dad, Mark Cox, have lived at a different church in West Knox County each week for the last two months.

The Coxes are in a program called Family Promise, which provides nonemergency shelter, meals and intensive case management for families searching for jobs and housing.

Every Sunday, they stuff their suitcases and move on to another church that will house them for the next seven days.

Jessie and Christian are among more than 250 homeless children expected to attend Knox County public schools this year.

They're among nearly 10,000 children in Tennessee and more than 250,000 in the nation without a permanent bed on any given night.

And the numbers are growing each year. The word "homeless" conjures up images of panhandlers on street corners and adults huddled under blankets on sidewalks. But not pictures of infants. Or of adolescents.

"They're truly invisible," said Barbara Duffield, policy director for the Minneapolis-based National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth.

"They're out of sight, out of mind." Child advocates on local and state levels, working under the authority of a federal law known as the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, are working to remove barriers that make it difficult for homeless children to lead normal lives like their peers.

They're eligible for free breakfast and lunch at school. They're enrolled without proof of residency and sometimes immunizations, something that's typically required for all students.

They're transported to their base school, the place they attended before they became homeless, to ensure stability in that aspect of their lives.

Jessie said she's glad, despite the many moves, that she gets to keep her friends and see the same teachers every day at Halls.

The long ride is a little tiring. She and her brother have another hour-and-a-half-commute after school.

But a shorter ride to school is not what's on the top of the youngster's list of things to do when she and her family eventually move into their own home.

It's sleeping in on Saturdays. Maybe splashing in a pool on hot days. Having a routine of watching cartoons. "When we get our own place," she said, "then I'll watch TV."

Of its 54,000 students, Knox County transports roughly 250 homeless children each year. Those are the students that officials are aware of.

"We know there are families out there we're not getting to because we don't know about it," said Brenda Hankins, the district's supervisor of homeless education. It's hard to pin down an exact number because of the population's transient nature.

The figure also changes, because people constantly move into the area. Elementary-age children make up a majority of those students, she said. The district's numbers have remained steady the last three years.

The state requires each school district to have a homeless liaison in an attempt to quickly identify and get services to the needy.

Knox County's liaison, Tamara Saunders, works with several shelters, including Knox Area Rescue Ministries and the Salvation Army, to find the young, from toddlers to age 21.

In addition to shelters, homeless children live in economy motels, are doubled up with relatives or friends and sometimes live in tents, Saunders said. Knox County is not alone.

In the 2005-06 school year, school districts across the state reported serving a total of 9,629 homeless children, said Christie Lentz, project director for homeless education for the Tennessee Department of Education.

Bigger cities and urban areas tend to have a larger homeless population because of greater availability of resources, she said.

For example, Metro Nashville Public Schools, with roughly 74,000 students, serves 1,700 homeless children each year, said Melanie McElhiney, the district's homeless program assistant. Tennessee officials are serious about outreach, Lentz said.

They hold periodic training for liaisons. It was one of those sessions that changed the way Ronnie Mincey, liaison for Union County Public Schools, viewed homelessness.

He now understands that the definition also includes children awaiting foster care, children whose families live with other relatives and military children in transition, said Mincey, whose district currently serves five homeless children.

Union County includes fliers about their services in student information packets. In Cocke County, each school has posters about services for homeless children, said Paul Cogburn, the district's homeless liaison.

In addition, he said, "I've asked each principal to place the information in the fire halls within their district." On a brisk October morning, Kelly Lamier, 12, and her brother, Travis, 7, were the first on the school bus.

It picked them up in front of Knox Area Rescue Ministries on Broadway every morning at 7 a.m. last month for the trip to Beaumont Magnet Honors Academy in North Knoxville.

"It's important for them so they don't feel different," their mother, Cheryl Lamier said. Lamier, originally from Cleveland, Ohio, moved to KARM in April with her five youngest children, ages 7 through 16.

The family has been searching for a regular home for 2 years. This is Lamier's third time in Knoxville. "It's always been difficult for me to keep a house," she said.

Her husband was a drug addict and oftentimes would spend their rent money, "so we got evicted a lot." "I feel bad for moving them back and forth, and I don't have stability for them," Lamier said.

She plans to stay in Knoxville so her children "will be able to make friends finally." School officials try to minimize the shame homeless children feel about their situation.

Saunders provides Knoxville Area Transit bus tickets to high school students to give them some independence. "If they're riding the (school) bus, we try to make sure they're picked up first or dropped off last," she said.

The school system also employs cab services for students, some of whom temporarily live outside the county, Saunders said.

Knox County Schools in September received a $98,623 grant from the state Department of Education, a majority of which is used for transportation.

Some of the money is also used for a summer program for homeless children. When the money is depleted, Knox County often pays the difference, which at times has been anywhere between $70,000 and $90,000, Saunders said.

Christian Cox, 12, recently gave his dad a report card with four A's and three F's. "One of the challenges is to determine if any of this is the reason for my son's poor grades," Mark Cox said, referring to his family's nomadic life.

"Or would I still see this if I were in a 10-bedroom house and had $1 million in the bank?" Cox was laid off last November from his $40,000-a-year job as a procurement manager. His wife, struggling with mental problems, attempted suicide, he said.

His in-laws also were sick, and he cared for them until they died. He eventually was faced with the option of going onto the streets or seeking help.

Now divorced, he and his two children ended up first at KARM in June, then at the Salvation Army and finally with Family Promise in August.

Cox, like other homeless parents, questions how directly homelessness affects his children's school work and social lives. A friend invited Christian to a birthday party.

The question wasn't if Christian should go but how, said Cox, who doesn't have a car. Some officials attribute the rise of homeless children to an increased focus in identifying them. Others point to the unstable economy and housing market as a cause.

Federal officials are using research to determine how to eradicate chronic homelessness. Of the 750,000 people homeless in the nation on any given night, about 250,000 are children, said Philip Mangano, known as President Bush's "homeless czar." "We would all agree, that's a national disgrace," said Mangano, who is is executive director of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness.

In the past two years, 43 states have seen increases in their homeless population, Duffield said. Reported numbers doubled between2003-04 and 2005-06.

"Obviously, some of that was (Hurricane) Katrina, but not all of it," she said. "It's hard to know if schools are doing a better job finding these children."

Duffield offered a second explanation: "More families are losing their homes," she said, because of "the housing market and the lack of affordable housing for poor families."

Using the research of a University of Pennsylvania professor, Mangano hopes federal officials will better redirect government funds toward eradicating homelessness.

"Our intent is to no longer manage people's homelessness," he said. "Our intent is ending homelessness." He could not give a timeframe as to when that would start, saying, "government is slower than we want it to be."

(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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