Homeless students in NEMS go under the radar

TUPELO – For more than a week, people throughout Northeast Mississippi have flocked to see the movie “The Blind Side,” about a homeless youth in Memphis who was adopted by a wealthy family and eventually became a first-round NFL draft pick.
At the same time, hundreds of “homeless” students are attending schools throughout Northeast Mississippi, largely escaping public notice.
About 400 students are classified as homeless in the Tupelo Public School District and just more than 300 in Lee County Schools. The number surprises even teachers and principals.
“I spent 27 years in the district and I had no idea there were that many homeless students in our district,” said Cynthia Colburn, who has retired as teacher but began working this year as the TPSD’s coordinator for homeless students. “That is a credit to the school district that it is not a big advertised thing, but they take care of them.”
The majority of those students are not living on the streets but are in situations referred to as “doubled-up.” That means their nuclear family lives with other relatives or friends.
The students’ guardians are neither the owner nor primary tenant of that residence and don’t have any official paperwork that contains their name and residential address.
Even though these students do have homes to go to, they face uncommon hardships, Colburn said.
“There is overcrowding,” she said. “Many people are living in small residences and the children don’t have space to themselves. In homeless situations where children are living in close quarters, sometimes there are issues like anger.”
Most people are doubled-up for economic reasons, Colburn said.
Perhaps single mothers still live with their parents. Sometimes mothers and fathers who were on their own had to move back in with parents or siblings because of a foreclosure or job loss.
In fact, Lee County Title I Coordinator Becky Hendrix said that people who have just always chosen to live with relatives don’t usually count in the homeless statistics.
But sometimes families are living together because of catastrophes – fires or tornadoes that have destroyed homes and forced people to pull together.
Other times, people who move from other states or countries may stay with family in the area until they get established and get their own residence.
Ninety percent of the homeless students in Lee County schools are living in doubled-up situations, Hendrix said.
About 80 students in the Tupelo district are in one of Tupelo’s five shelters for homeless or neglected youths. Lee County does not have any such shelters in its district.
Students who live in hotels or motels and those awaiting foster care are also considered homeless.
Some of the remaining homeless students are living in neglected houses or are on the streets. Others have recognized bad situations at home and have moved in with friends or have been taken in by other sympathetic parents, as Michael Oher was in “The Blind Side.”
“We have had families who have taken kids in,” Colburn said.
The number of students in these groups are harder to track because they often do not identify themselves.
“The children don’t know they’re homeless,” said TPSD Director of Federal Programs Dale Warriner. “You don’t identify them, and you try to maintain the integrity of all children.”
Homeless students are eligible to receive assistance from the school district.
Both Tupelo and Lee County School Districts receive federal grant money to provide supplies and tutors, among other services for the students.
The students get free lunch under the free and reduced lunch program.
Because of the shelters in its district, Tupelo receives more than $200,000 in federal grants to provide services for its homeless students.
A large portion of that money goes toward having 26 tutors who staff the shelters four days a week and toward supplying computer programs for children in the shelters.
Lee County Schools receive about $45,000 to help homeless students at the district’s non-Title-1 schools. Much of that is from a $28,000 grant to put in computer software at Shannon High School that students can use before and after school.
The software is available for all students, but a priority is given to homeless students.
The district’s Title-1 schools, all of its elementary schools, receive more than $2.5 million of federal funding, and some of that goes toward helping homeless students.
In addition to paying for tutors and software, the school district also provides supplies for its homeless students, including backpacks, summer reading books, notebooks and calculators.
It includes money for field trips and workbook fees.
The district also put the students in touch with local organizations Junior Auxiliary, Lions Club, Kiwanis Club and the Family Resource Center, which all have resources to help.
The federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act defines which students are considered homeless and lists their rights, including the federal funding.
Among those rights is the ability to continue attending their school of origin, even if homelessness has forced a move.
“The whole purpose of the McKinney-Vento Act,” said Debbie Pickens, Lee County’s coordinator for homeless students, “is to make sure every child has access to the same education.”

Contact Chris Kieffer at (662) 678-1590 or at chris.kieffer@djrournal.com.

Chris Kieffer/NEMS Daily Journal