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Local students without a place to call home

Robert Houk • Sep 1, 2019 at 12:10 AM

The first day of school can create special memories for both a parent and child.

Tears are shed. Hugs are given. Cellphone photos are taken.

Sydnee DeBusk, homeless coordinator for Johnson City Schools, says it’s no different for a mother and her daughter living in their car. DeBusk said one such homeless mother experienced all those emotions recently while saying goodbye to her child on her first day of kindergarten.

“The child is not being abused or neglected,” DeBusk said. “I think we have two students this year who are living in their cars. It’s a very sad situation, but we want people to know we are here to help them.”

DeBusk’s said the federal McKinney-Vento Act, which pays for much of the school system’s homeless program, defines homelessness as “lacking a “fixed, regular and adequate night-time residence.”

That includes children and teenagers who live:

• Doubled-up, which means temporarily living with relatives or friends due to a loss of housing, economic hardship or a similar reason.

• In motels, hotels, or campgrounds.

• In shelters.

• In cars, abandoned buildings or on the streets.

• In substandard housing lacking adequate electrical or plumbing.

There were 265 students in Johnson City Schools designated as homeless in the 2018-19 school year. That number is 80 students for the current school year, which began in early August.

Washington County Schools reported 315 homeless students in the last school year. James Murphy, the county school system’s director of attendance, said there are 27 students identified as homeless in the new school year, but that “number will grow as our schools are still gathering paperwork from families.”

DeDusk said 74% of Johnson City’s homeless students are “couch surfing,” which means their family is staying with friends or relatives.

“Homelessness affects the entire family, not just the schoolchildren,” said Shaniece Austin, the city’s homeless education program assistant. 

Austin said being homeless leads to food insecurity and can create self-esteem problems for older students. 

What type of services are available to homeless students?

DeBusk said the Johnson City program helps to expedite  school enrollment with zero barriers and assist with the transfer of school records. It also offers after-school tutoring and provides transportation to school as needed.

The program provides essential school supplies and clothing needed for classroom, sports or band activities. DeBusk said a typical fifth-grader in Johnson City needs $63 in school supplies a year.

The homeless program also acts as a referral source to coordinate services between the schools and other social agencies to meet the needs of students and their families.

In Washington County, Murphy said students have access to all federal programs for food and clothing services. Additional food is also provided for students during long breaks  

Who pays for these programs?

DeBusk said federal money from the McKinney-Vento Act pays for the position of the homeless coordinator, but the program’s daily operations are funded by community donations.

Murphy said a majority of the services for homeless students in Washington County are paid for by federal funds. Private charities and local churches also lend a helping hand.

Does being homeless impact a student's academic outcome?

“Absolutely,” DeBusk said.”For each new school change, the student loses three to four months of academic progress. In addition, they are carrying the weight of adult issues, such as having to worry about where they are going to sleep that night.”

All these issues, DeBusk said, will “impact their ability to focus on their academic achievements.”

Murphy said such distractions may lead homeless students “to drop out of school as soon as possible once they reach the age of 18.”

What can the public do to help?

DeBusk said the Johnson City program can always use more monetary donations and residents who will open their homes for emergency placements. She said the public becoming more aware and knowing how to spot the common signs of homelessness is also helpful.

To learn more about the city’s program for homeless students and what you can do to help, contact DeBusk at 491-1961.

Murphy said the homeless program for Washington County students will gladly accept donations for clothing and food needs, as well as assistance with deposits for living space. Call 434-4910 for more information.

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