SMITHFIELD — The number of homeless students in Johnston County schools has nearly tripled this year, school officials say.
Last year, the school system had 93 homeless students, said Dr. Oliver Johnson, director of student services. The year before, 22 students were homeless.
This year, 277 students were homeless. Of that total, 50 were left homeless by the tornadoes April 16.
Johnson said the recession and high jobless rate largely had contributed to the rising number of homeless students.
The true number is likely higher than reported, he said, because some students are not labeled as homeless when they should be.
And the total is expected to rise.
The schools consider a student homeless if he or she does not have a fixed address, Johnson said. So a student whose family is staying with relatives is homeless under the schools' definition.
"It's no longer the definition we have in our heads of someone sleeping on a sidewalk or a car or a park," Johnson said. "It's really changed."
The number of students in Johnston who receive free or reduced-price meals also is on the rise. This past school year, 44 percent of students received free or discounted lunches, said Rachel Findley, director of child nutrition.
Last year, about 43 percent of students received free or reduced-price meals, and the number was 40 percent the year before, Findley said.
She expects the number of students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch to continue to rise.
The system works with families in need of help. If students have to stay with friends or relatives in another town, the schools will provide transportation to their home schools so they don't have to switch.
This past school year, Johnston schools bused about 45 homeless students to their home schools, Johnson said.
The system is seeking a federal grant that would help families pay for rent, clothing and food.
The grant would be $30,000 for three years, Johnson said.
"[Sometimes] they need to stay in a motel for a few days until they can transition to something a little more permanent," he said. "We may be able to help."
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