Ashley Taylor

Exceptional Children Data Manager Ashley Taylor inventories and prepares donated items for distribution to students in need at Jackson Community School.

As the season approaches when many people will gather with family and friends to enjoy and give thanks for their abundance, there is an often-overlooked segment of the population who will instead spend the holidays simply trying to meet their basic human needs.

Rather than sharing in the bounty of food and fellowship that is common this time of year, many homeless residents in our community will focus instead on how to sustain themselves each day throughout the cold winter months.

Especially heartbreaking is the plight of children who are victims of homelessness and do not have the means or know-how to improve their situation. Nationwide, one in 30 children is identified as homeless, and data from the U.S. Department of Education shows the number of homeless children consistently growing. Unfortunately, it is often difficult to identify these children and connect them to the agencies and organizations that can provide relief and gain access to essential services.

A critical link to those services is public schools. No other organization has the means and expertise like local school districts to directly reach and serve children who are homeless. 

A 2017 study by the University of Chicago concluded that the lack of a high school diploma or GED was the highest risk factor for youth homelessness.

Jackson County Public Schools Superintendent Kim Elliott described the broad and far-reaching role of public schools in assisting students who are homeless.

“We provide each student with whatever support they need,” she said. “We make their school experience the best it can possibly be each day.”

Dana Tucker, a social worker with JCPS for 24 years, believes students who are suffering from homelessness benefit immensely from their daily interactions with support staff and teachers.

“I was the person who was able to develop a relationship and rapport with the students who were homeless,” she said. “They became my kids.”

Tucker, who is now the district’s behavior specialist, described her former social worker role as one that removed barriers to learning.

“While they are at school, it’s important that they have things to make them comfortable,” she said. “To watch a child that you’ve fixed their shoes with duct tape, and then you’re able to give them a new pair of shoes that someone donated and watch their face is amazing.”

According to the federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, the term “homeless children and youth” applies to students who “lack a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence.” It includes circumstances such as staying in a shelter, living in a hotel or motel, temporarily sharing housing with others as a result of hardship and living in an unsheltered location or any public or private place that is not intended or ordinarily used as a regular sleeping accommodation for human beings.

Jackson County Schools Director of Elementary Education and Homeless Liaison Laura Dills said the school district currently has 50 students classified as homeless.

“In the last two years, we have averaged 108 and 115 by the end of the year,” she said. “It’s a very mobile population.”

Dills is especially concerned about students who are considered “unaccompanied” which is defined by McKinney-Vento as “not in the physical custody of a parent or guardian.”

She recounted the story of four children ranging from second grade to eighth grade whose mother left them on their own and did not return. The children were able to live with an older sibling last year but did not return to school this year, so their current location is unknown.

Tucker said losing touch with children who are homeless is one of the most difficult parts of the job.

“In your brain and your heart, you take them home,” she said. “The hardest thing is when they’re just gone.”

There are many reasons for homelessness in the community, but school officials are quick to identify the ones that are most common. They include the lack of affordable housing, difficulty finding consistent employment that pays a living wage, the breakup of families and drug abuse.

With that in mind, Dills believes education is an equalizer.

“Regardless of your parents’ circumstances, education gives you the ability to be just as successful as your peers,” she said.

Nonetheless, those who are tasked with reaching the homeless are often frustrated by obstacles that are difficult to overcome. The most challenging is the lack of consistency in the life of a child who is homeless.

“The absence of routine is the greatest barrier and the hardest for us to control, because they are literally trying to survive,” Dills said. “Research  hows that when basic needs are not being met, it is hard to pay attention to academic needs. Basic needs become the priority.”

Thus, the role of public schools goes far beyond teaching and learning.

“We always honor the whole child, and each child has equal opportunity and access to anything that they want to do and be,” Elliott said. “The schools many times are a pivot point.”

In fact, the public is often unaware of the extent to which school districts go to meet the physical, mental and social needs of students who are disadvantaged. Even though federal money is provided for school nutrition and the removal of specific educational barriers, very little funding is available to meet a student’s needs outside the classroom.

As a result, schools act as a bridge to connect families with the agencies, organizations and people who can help them.

School social workers are in constant contact with government agencies. They build relationships with community organizations such as Mountain Projects, Circles of Jackson, Jackson Neighbors in Need, Community Table, United Christian Ministries and various church groups.

Local businesses donate materials so students who are disadvantaged can participate in school activities without the embarrassment and stigma of appearing to be different. Over the past two years, Jackson County Commissioners showed their commitment by providing funds for six additional student support specialists.

“Jackson County is amazing,” Tucker said. “There is a can-do attitude; a make-it-happen attitude that comes from the business leaders, churches and community members to go an extra mile to make sure children have what they need. It is an incredible place to live.”

Community members who want to help are often surprised at how basic the needs really are.

“Most people who are not experiencing hardship don’t know how important it is to give these kids a coat, gloves; snacks that don’t have to be heated,” Tucker said. “Some of the things these kids need are the shampoos and soaps that you get at the hotel. Those are perfect for kids to be able to go into the bathroom and wash up.”

There are many ways for individuals, groups and organizations to help local children in need.

Jackson County Public Schools will continue the very successful “Stuff the Bus” campaign during December to collect clothing and personal items. Financial contributions  an be made to the JCPS Student Support Services office. Monetary gifts can be unrestricted or given for a specific need or student. By law, financial contributions cannot be redirected or used for any other purpose.

Dills is especially proud of how the community came together to help a student who was too old for foster care and only two months away from high school graduation. The student left home on their own for safety reasons and slept on the street. A school counselor invited the student to stay with them until community members made a down payment on a rental unit that was close to town so the student could walk to work. With help from the school counselor, the student created a budget, graduated from high school and secured an internship.

Despite numerous success stories, working with children who are homeless can be emotionally draining for school staff.

“I would bring half of them home if we had the circumstances,” Dills said.

Elliott shared the burden she feels for all children who are disadvantaged.

“As a mother and grandmother, it does break my heart that we have homelessness and students in dire need,” she said. “I really hope the community will help us band together behind families and assist students who need a new pair of shoes; an extra snack; a warm winter coat. I don’t want any child anywhere to not have what they need.”