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Social workers, school officials seek to aid homeless students
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Ursula Harris, left, a Gainesville City School System social worker, speaks during a meeting on Thursday, April 26, 2018, discussing housing discrimination and its impact on families who have children in school. - photo by David Barnes

A restlessness swept through the rows of attendees when two social workers spoke about the hundreds of homeless students enrolled in Hall County and Gainesville city schools during a workshop on affordable housing availability last week.

It was as though everyone shifted in their seat at the same time.

Just shy of 300 students enrolled in Hall schools are considered homeless, up from 158 two years ago, while the number in Gainesville schools spiked to 316 from 84 between 2014 and 2017.

Currently, the city school system reports having 268 homeless students enrolled this year.

The causes of homelessness are varied and sometimes obvious — substance abuse, split families, mental illness — but explaining why hundreds of students in the Gainesville and Hall County school districts are sleeping in cars, hotels, campgrounds, homes without basic utilities and emergency shelters each night exposes another network of roots.

Schools have been left to bear some of the burden of a homelessness problem that has metastasized locally in recent years, in part, by a severe shortage of housing considered affordable based on personal income.

So schools have worked to better identify which students qualify as homeless.

And the potential for discrimination in rental housing based on race, disability, age, religion, family size and other social metrics prompted the Newtown Florist Club — a longtime civil rights organization focused on promoting youth development and organizing for social, economic and environmental justice — to host the forum for educators and residents to share testimonials about the struggles students and their families face in their everyday living conditions.

“When you hear the stories, they come straight from the kids,” Gainesville Superintendent Jeremy Williams said. “We’ve got to do a whole lot more than teach.”

Community housing workshops

What: The third of three workshops on housing discrimination and affordability in Gainesville and Hall County (hosted by the local Newtown Florist Club civil rights organization)

When: 6 p.m. May 24

Where: Fair Street Neighborhood Center, 715 Fair St., Gainesville

More info: Call 770-718-1343 or email newtown193@gmail.com

Gainesville school officials have hardened their focus in recent months on implementing and providing wraparound services for students, with the potential to expand mental health counseling, add a clothing closet or food pantry, and develop new academic mentorships.

“We’re just on the front end of that,” Williams said. “We do have a lot of services now, but we don’t do it in a way that’s best coordinated to our students. Every child is different.”

Ursula Harris, a social worker for Gainesville schools, said that by law students meet the criteria of homelessness if they “lack a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence.”

ny students and their families may be “double- or triple-upped,” Harris said, living with relatives or friends.

“When you look at that and you think about Gainesville, you can imagine the numbers that we have of families who fit that description,” Harris said, adding that a large immigrant population and student body contribute to the high numbers. “So what do we do …?”

Holly Farmer, a social worker with Hall County Schools, said staff members are given training and educated about resources available to homeless students to assist schools in surveying who may be in need.

“Identification is a huge part of the process,” she added.

When students are identified as homeless, Farmer said the immediate objective is keeping them in their “school of origin.”

“The more a student has to move, the more class time they’re missing,” she added.

School systems, therefore, will continue to enroll and provide transportation for homeless students if and when they are residing in another city or district.

Farmer said all homeless students automatically qualify for free and reduced lunches, provided class supplies and resource guides are given to their families.

“But then we try to take it a step further,” Harris said. “We want our families to feel supported.”

Follow-ups are standard, and social workers will connect with housing agencies to assist families in finding a stable residence. This could include coordinating with shelters or having families apply with the Gainesville Housing Authority.

“With everything else that’s going on in their life, there should be somewhere you can go where you know people, where you got support, where you feel safe, where you feel comfortable,” Harris said.

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