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School districts try to provide stability for displaced students
Nearly 400 local students identified as homeless under federal law
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How to get help

The Compass Center is a one-stop center offering up-to-date information on availability at local shelters as well as other existing services for residents and families in Gainesville and Hall County.

• Where: 615 Oak St., Suite A, Gainesville

• When: Open 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday-Friday

• More info: 770-535-7066 and www.unitedwayhallcounty.org/compasscenter

About 20 months ago, Amy, her husband and two children moved to Gainesville from South Georgia, looking for a fresh start. The company she worked for gave her a transfer. Her husband would find work once they arrived.

“We moved up here thinking we had more money than we did, but some money didn’t come through like it was supposed to,” she said. “We came here with no other plan than I had a job. It was real hard to find a place to live in, so, we’re like, ‘We’ve got money coming. We’ll just stay in a hotel for a week or two — no biggie.’ Well, two weeks turned into a year.”

Amy, who requested not to be identified by her last name, and her family spent about 13 months living in motels where other families were also staying for long periods of time, cooking meals on a hot plate and working jobs to earn enough to finally get out of the motel.

Officials say their situation is not that rare. Nearly 400 students — 195 in Gainesville schools and 185 in Hall schools — are identified as homeless under McKinney-Vento, a federal law that requires school districts provide transportation and help with other needs in an effort to make school a place of stability for students whose lives are often unstable.

Dr. Ursula Harris, who works as a social worker and the homeless liaison for the Gainesville school system, said McKinney-Vento defines a homeless student as “any student whose night-time residence is not fixed, regular and adequate.”

Most are in families who are “doubled up,” living with at least one other family, usually friends or family, but the number also includes families like Amy’s living in hotels as well as others living in difficult situations.

“The primary basis for McKinney-Vento is school stability,” Harris said. “If I know where I’m going to come to school — I know my classmates and I know my teachers — if that can remain constant in the midst of all the other chaos that is going on, I have a better opportunity to be successful in school. If I’m constantly changing schools every two months or every two weeks, I’m not going to be successful.”

Holly Farmer, a social worker and the homeless liaison for the Hall County school system, agreed.

“That stability piece is what I try to discuss with parents,” she said. “I feel like stability is everything to kids.”

Both said the numbers of students identified as homeless under the law has risen in recent years because schools have worked harder to identify those who meet the criteria.

“They’ve been here, but they just weren’t identified,” Harris said.

Both districts seek to identify families who fit the criteria of the law when parents register children for school. Once children and their families are identified, services are offered. Transportation can be provided if the parents want to keep the children in their school of origin. They also look at other needs including emergency shelter, affordable housing, food, school supplies, clothing and finding school registration paperwork.

Amy and her family learned they qualified for transportation and other benefits after meeting with Harris, which came after she registered the kids for school.

“Because I told them when we registered the kids for school that I lived in a hotel, they told me, ‘You need to come talk to the school social worker,’” Amy said. “She’s been awesome. She goes in and checks on the kids. She goes to great lengths to take care of her families.”

Because there is a stigma attached to the word “homeless,” Harris, Farmer and other officials don’t use it, preferring terms such as “displaced” or “in transition.”

“Many of them don’t think of themselves as homeless,” Harris said.

Farmer said the needs are often “overwhelming.”

“One of things I run into now is, they’re in crisis situations, so they need emergency shelter, they need emergency housing, and there’s a lack of that in Hall County,” she said. “We do have some wonderful shelters that we work with, but with some of them, you get put on a waiting list or you have to fulfill requirements that some families aren’t able to. It’s those first one to two days after they’re in that crisis situation, that’s probably the most difficult in helping them find some relief.”

“It’s different when you put a child’s face on it,” Farmer added. “People think homeless and they think people standing on the side of the road with their signs and they think people sleeping in their cars, but they don’t think children.”

Farmer said she has dealt with about 15 students this year who are categorized as unaccompanied youth.

“They are usually high school age and not able to get along with family, the situation is not safe or maybe there is abuse in the home,” Farmer said. “The teenager has left home and lives with friends or family. I try to meet with them in person to see the needs. I know they are very vulnerable. A lot of them are 18 years old at that point and they’re just trying to navigate the system on their own.”

After more than a year of living in motels where her kids and many others were picked up by school buses each morning, Amy’s family found a duplex they could afford seven months ago. One of her kids has already transferred to a Hall County school while the other remains at a Gainesville school until the end of the school year.

“There’s space,” Amy said about the difference since being out of the motel. “We can have our belongings out and feel more comfortable. My oldest daughter’s grades have improved a lot now she has a place to work on school work. I don’t have to cook a meal on a hotplate anymore.”

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