Number of homeless students rises in Wake County schools

Deanna Nelson holds her son Shone, 4, while her oldest son Monteece, 9, rests against her at the South Wilmington Street Center in Raleigh. The three went to the center to volunteer to feed Thanksgiving dinner to homeless men.
Deanna Nelson holds her son Shone, 4, while her oldest son Monteece, 9, rests against her at the South Wilmington Street Center in Raleigh. The three went to the center to volunteer to feed Thanksgiving dinner to homeless men.

Thousands of Wake County students go to school each day and then return home uncertain about where they’ll be sleeping – that night or for the next few nights.

The number of homeless children in the Wake County school system has increased 23 percent since 2009 to 2,736 students for the past school year. Deanna Nelson’s children were among those driving the statistics last spring, so the Raleigh mother turned to a network of community groups to help escape homelessness and move into stable housing.

In thanks, Nelson and her sons spent part of their Thanksgiving helping to serve meals to homeless men at the South Wilmington Street Center in Raleigh.

“There was always someone there to help me; someone who gave a coat to my children,” Nelson said. “That’s my way of giving back.”

But those who work with homeless families say there are thousands of Wake County children who haven’t yet found permanent housing. These children face physical, emotional and developmental issues that make receiving an education even more difficult.

“One in 30 children experiences homelessness,” said Jennifer Tisdale, coordinator of the Salvation Army of Wake County’s Project CATCH (Community Action Targeting Children Who Are Homeless) program. “You can go into a Wake County classroom and one child will be homeless, statistically.

“My heart goes out of to these children. They have as many dreams as the child next to them, but they have a harder road.”

There are 1.3 million homeless students in the U.S. and 24,492 in North Carolina, according to a report released in November by the National Center For Homeless Education at UNC Greensboro.

Those figures are based on the definition used in the federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, which covers students who don’t have a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence. This includes students living in shelters, out on the streets, in cars, hotels and motels and temporarily with other people.

Michelle Mozingo, the Wake County school system’s district liaison for providing help under the McKinney-Vento act, said about half of the district’s homeless students are from families who are temporarily sharing living spaces.

Project CATCH estimates the number of homeless children in Wake County at close to 5,000. Tisdale said those children are invisible to many people because most of them aren’t living in shelters or on the streets.

“You don’t necessarily know they exist, because you don’t see them,” she said.

Tisdale and others who work with homeless families say the lack of affordable housing in Wake County contributes to the number of homeless families.

Lisa Rowe, executive director of PLM Families Together, a Raleigh-based nonprofit that helps homeless families find housing, pointed to a New York Times analysis that said Wake County is among the worst counties in the U.S. in helping poor children up the income ladder. Wake ranked 154th out of 2,478 counties, better than only about 6 percent of counties.

“Wake is a great place to live for some people, but it’s harder to move out of poverty once you’re there,” Rowe said.

Mozingo said a wide variety of Wake County students qualify for homeless services.

“The community would be surprised about the profile of students who are homeless,” she said. “Many are just a paycheck away from being on the street.”

Many of the motels and hotels that homeless families live in have substandard conditions, according to Tisdale. In one room she visited recently, Tisdale said, kids were sleeping on a carpet that was saturated with water from a leaking air-conditioning unit.

Danielle Peterson said some hotel rooms she stayed in had foul odors and mattresses with holes and cigarette burns. But the Raleigh mother said she had to make sure her kids had somewhere to sleep at night.

“You won’t get anything by lying around and moaning about it,” Peterson said. “Sometimes you have to put yourself in a predicament to get you into a better place.”

The United Way of the Greater Triangle is helping to fund a collaborative effort called More Than A Roof to provide housing and other services to families living in hotels.

The Wake County school system works to provide housing assistance to homeless families, Mozingo said. She said the school system also tries to help provide clothing to homeless students in addition to bus service, free school meals, first aid and counseling. The district works with 168 community organizations.

“Students need to have their basic needs met before they can learn,” Mozingo said.

Nelson, the previously homeless Raleigh mother, said she is still dealing with the repercussions from having been in an abusive relationship that led her family’s spending three months in a domestic violence shelter. She said her oldest son, Monteece, 9, saw a lot of what happened, so she tells him the violence he was exposed to is not the best way to resolve conflicts.

“It’s really about creating the moments when they can see what real love is like and having those conversations about not making the wrong choices,” she said.

Nelson said her children and her faith in God helped her get through the time at the shelter, including staying there during Easter. With the help of Project Catch and PLM Families Together, Nelson’s family now lives in an apartment.

“At Easter I didn’t have an Easter basket to give to my children,” she said. “This was not what the final story was going to be. Even if I had to spend my Thanksgiving and Christmas homeless, I knew that wouldn’t be the end.”

Peterson, the previously homeless Raleigh mom, spent the fall of 2014 shuffling between shelters, hotels and relatives before finding out about a program to help young moms get into apartments, an effort run by Raleigh-based Haven House Services. Peterson can still recall her oldest son, Noah, 3, telling her to look at his room.

“The faces of the little kids are brighter knowing they have a place of their own,” said Kelsey Mosley, outreach coordinator for crisis and homeless services for Haven House. “They can concentrate on school now.”

The apartment arranged through Haven House is only for a year, so Peterson is looking for a place to move into early next year. But Peterson says she’s grateful to be where she is now, compared to her situation at the same time a year ago.

“My kids have a bed they can sleep on,” she said. “I have a place where I can rest my head at night. Now I’m doing everything I can to position myself to be in a better situation when it ends here.”

To help position herself for the future, Peterson will take Wednesday the final test she needs to receive her GED certificate. She has aspirations of going into nursing.

“When they’re older, I’m going to tell them about when we were homeless when Mommy was struggling,” Peterson said. “I’m going to let them know so they can have compassion. There are going to be homeless people.”

T. Keung Hui: 919-829-4534, @nckhui

Facts of homeless students’ lives

November is National Homeless Youth Awareness Month. Earlier this month, Wake County schools staffer Michelle Mozingo briefed the Wake school board on how the district serves homeless students. She referenced data which show that homeless students typically:

▪ Get sick four times as much as other children;

▪ Experience three times the rate of emotional and behavioral problems;

▪ Are four times as likely to show delayed development;

▪ Have twice the levels of learning disabilities;

▪ In 83 percent of cases, are exposed to at least one serious violent incident.

– National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth