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Too young to walk the streets

By Kate Murphy 

A 6-foot-5-inch teenage boy who attended Walter Williams High School slept in the back seat of his car almost every night of his senior year.

He and his mom, a paranoid schizophrenic who refused to be diagnosed or treated, were homeless and there wasn’t much he could do about it.

Despite the circumstances, that young man got up every day and went to school. He was only absent two days during his senior year. And when he walked across the stage at Williams High School and graduated, only a handful of his peers knew he lived in a car all year long.

“That school environment everyday was his safe place,” said Jan Bowman, a McKinney-Vento program specialist in the Alamance-Burlington school system. “That was the eight hours of the day he knew were going to be normal. He knew what was going to happen. He knew he was going to get a meal. It was amazing.”

Two years ago, a young man came to Alamance County student support services at Williams High School to re-enroll. He was 18 and he had dropped out, but he was academically and intellectually gifted.

He was living deep in the woods in an old tent he found in the trash that was duct-taped together and he was hauling his food in each day.

He had been kicked out of the house by his mother and didn’t want to stay at the shelter where, at 18, he would’ve been placed in the male dorm with 44 other grown men. So he made his own shelter in a place he knew was right down the street from a bus stop where he could get catch a ride to school.

He kept his belongings at the high school. He had two lockers in the gym: one filled with clean clothes and toiletries and the other with dirty clothes. He would come in every morning, take a shower, throw his dirty clothes in one locker and take out his clean clothes to wear that day. On Fridays he would go to the home economics department to do his laundry and then reload his clean locker back for the next week.

Their stories are not the only ones. There are over 10,000 children 18 and younger living in poverty in Alamance County, and hundreds of them don’t have a home to sleep in every night, let alone a reliable meal or shower.

The overall population for enrollment in the Alamance-Burlington School System is about 23,000 students spread across 36 schools. Last year, 783 students were identified as homeless under the McKinney-Vento Act. This year, more than 500 have already been identified. Bowman said as the school year continues, that number will likely rise.

“Anytime you use the word homeless, people want to think that they’re not in our area and that they’re not in our building and not in our school seats,” Bowman said.

The McKinney-Vento Homeless Education Assistance Improvements Act of 2001 protects all students who do not have a fixed, regular and adequate residence by giving them equal access to an education as provided to other students. This includes children who are staying in doubled-up housing with other families or friends, various shelters, hotels, motels, cars or the streets.

“We work with school social workers and counselors on campus sites to identify and determine eligibility of students for the McKinney-Vento program,” Bowman said. “Our goal is identify who are homeless and transition to be able to provide them academic stability and eliminate as many barriers as possible to enrollment.”

One of the key provisions of the program is to allow a student who is in transition and may move multiple times throughout the school year to remain at their school of origin.

“We can keep that one stable piece in place, where their day-to-day environment remains the same, their peer groups remain the same and they’re dealing with the same teachers who are aware of their issues and their transition period,” Bowman said.

By law, the students are also allowed to take part in every activity that any other student would, including sports and music programs. Student support services look at waiving fees and removing barriers to allow students to success in all aspects of the school environment.

One of the biggest barriers is transportation because there aren’t many alternative transportation options within the school system. Although it can be expensive, bus transportation to and from school every day is provided for homeless students, even if they are at a shelter or out of their school zone.

“We are very discreet and sensitive because there very often could be a peer on that bus,” Bowman said. “We pick them up at a residential neighborhood and at a standard bus stop not at the shelter itself so that there is no stigma attached to where that student is coming from.”

School-based programs that target impoverished or homeless children are particularly important, because in Alamance County, more than one-in-four children live below the poverty line.

“The national average age of a homeless person is nine years old, which is staggering,” said Jimmy Taylor, captain of the Salvation Army of Alamance County. “We don’t think of a child being a homeless person. We think of a drunk man living under a bridge with a beard. You think of that type of a person, when most of the time, it is children.”

The Salvation Army runs a Boys and Girls Club that sees over 120 kids every single day that come from impoverished neighborhoods. Some of them are homeless. Some live in the domestic violence shelter and are offered the opportunity to go for free.

“We’re trying to find ways to impact the children,” Taylor said. “Because nothing is more detrimental to a child than to live in a homeless situation, to be tagged as: ‘Well, I don’t have a place to live. I am a homeless person.’”

The programs at the Salvation Army, through the Boys and Girls Club, provide a either free or very reduced rate for after school care and tutoring.

“Students from Elon come every day and provide this stability for these kids,” Taylor said, “to get them out of the mindset of: ‘I’m living in this poverty situation. I’m dealing with mom and dad issues. I’m dealing with homelessness,’ to a more positive environment.”

The number of children who live in poverty in Alamance County has grown to 29 percent and more than half of the county’s public school students are on free and reduced lunch.

“Your chances of being successful in school and your health outcomes if you’re born in poverty are less,” said Heidi Norwick, president of United Way of Alamance County. “You’re starting out behind and that catching up doesn’t happen unless you have intervention programs.”

According to N.C. Child, young children faced the greatest risk of living in poverty. Last year, 30 percent of children under the age of five in North Carolina lived in poor households.

The Alamance County McKinney-Vento program is also trying to focus on children who are not enrolled in school yet, but who might be at the shelters or be siblings of students have been identified in the schools.

“Early intervention is extremely important for them to come into kindergarten being ready to learn and have those basic skills,” Bowman said. “And many of those students, because they’re in transition, don’t have a lot of tools that a lot of students have to grow and learn.”

One of the most telling things for Bowman is how intuitive the younger students are about their parents behavior and reactions to becoming homeless or being homeless.

She says they are the strength and they are ones lifting parents up.

“They often say to the parent who thinks they’re falling apart, ‘we’re fine,’” Bowman said. “They find that golden piece in every day to say I’ve got enough to do my homework, I’ve got what I need, we’ve got food for tomorrow.”