Editor’s note: The name of the student featured in this article has been changed to protect her privacy.
Dee can’t wait to decorate her new bedroom in zebra print.
The Gainesville High freshman just moved into a new apartment with her mother and two brothers. The apartment comes after a year of transition, beginning with a move from Cordele to Gainesville in August 2012.
While Dee and her family were defined as homeless by school and government standards, she never saw herself that way.
“I just say I lived in a shelter,” she said, shrugging.
But Dee and her family were technically homeless.
They’re not alone.
There are 25 homeless students documented in the Gainesville school system so far this year and 30 in the Hall County system. By the end of the 2012-13 school year, 80 homeless students were a part of the Hall system.
“Every year we start fresh,” said Dania Peguero, homeless liaison with the Hall system.
“These kids are transients so they’re in and out. As that happens, a lot of them will just tell us during enrollment (that) this is our circumstance.”
A recent report shows more students are living in poverty. A September policy report by the Georgia Budget & Policy Institute notes both Hall County and Gainesville school systems have had an increase in economically disadvantaged students since 2003.
The Gainesville numbers jumped 11.9 percent, while Hall saw a 20.7 percent increase.
“Economically disadvantaged” does not translate to homelessness, but the definition of homeless encompasses many ideas of what that may look like, including children living in shelters, motels, cars or awaiting foster care placement.
Dee’s mother, Mary, moved three of her five children to the area when their home in Cordele burned down. They initially lived with Mary’s sister and then moved from motel to motel before going back to her sister’s place.
“For a whole month, we slept on the floor,” Mary said. “We didn’t have any food.”
Eventually, they had to leave her sister’s place. One of Dee’s teachers called the Salvation Army, and the family moved to the shelter.
Connecting families with community resources is the main way school systems are able to help in these situations.
The biggest responsibility school leaders have is to ensure the student is enrolled and there is no interruption in learning. Beyond that, many services are up to community organizations.
“We make sure these kids are enrolled. We make sure they’re getting to school without any problems. We’re making sure they have access to free or reduced lunch,” Peguero said. “As far as other needs they might have, we look to the community for that.”
Gainesville Superintendent Merrianne Dyer said a small amount of federal funding is received for homeless students.
“Sometimes there is help with reconnection of a utility bill, or clothing and food are mostly the issues,” Dyer said. “Then connecting them to the community agencies.”
Dee and her family stayed at the Salvation Army in July, but Mary didn’t have the money the agency requires for people to remain in the shelter.
She had a job and was working toward an associate degree when the family lived in Cordele, but while staying at the shelter, she was not in school and was unemployed.
On July 31, Mary and her children were asked to leave the Salvation Army shelter.
That was when she was connected with Family Promise of Hall County, a nonprofit that assists homeless families.
The organization’s office serves as a home during the day for people not at work or in school. Families are transported to area churches at nights to sleep.
The family stayed with Family Promise throughout August and September.
Mary heard Sept. 26 that she had been placed in a three-bedroom apartment through the Gainesville Housing Authority, and the family moved in Tuesday.
Peguero said there are some families who don’t realize they qualify as homeless under the McKinney-Vento Homeless Education Assistance Act, put in place by the federal government to ensure homeless students have transportation to school and can remain in the same school despite frequent moves.
“We’ve even had people, like a new wave of people who are homeless that we never used to think of them before,” Peguero said. “For instance, because of the economy, (they are) losing their jobs. They enter this new lifestyle that they’ve never had before.”
She said people who are pushed out of their homes through foreclosure and go to live with family or friends are considered homeless under the act.
“Those folks never consider themselves homeless,” she explained. “Circumstances sometimes bring those things to light.”
Dyer said the Gainesville system has a rising number of students living in motels and campgrounds.
Dee never considered herself homeless, nor did her mother. Mary said they always managed to have a roof over their heads.
For now, that is in the form of a rent-free apartment. Mary is back in school and hopes to have her associate degree by May. She continues to look for clerical work.
In spite of an unstable housing situation, Dee said she makes good grades and is in chorus and junior ROTC. She wants to attend the University of North Georgia and plans to join the Air Force.
“I just want to say that kids who are out there struggling worse than me, I just hope that they find a home,” Dee said. “Because I know that we had patience and finally got one, to live.”