Report: Hundreds of students classified as homeless in Houston County

alopez@macon.comJune 29, 2014 

WARNER ROBINS -- This past school year, 327 students in the Houston County school system were identified as homeless.

There are degrees of homelessness, said Jennifer Birdsong, the system’s director of federal programs. During the 2013-14 academic year, 63 percent of the Houston County students classified as homeless were living in situations where they were “doubled-up” in the homes of friends or family, according to a report Birdsong released to The Telegraph.

“Rarely in Houston County do we have families living in unsheltered situations, such as cars or parks,” the report stated.

Of the students classified as homeless, 25 percent were experiencing transitional housing living in motels or RV parks, 12 percent were living in shelters, either at the Salvation Army Safe House or at the Duke Avenue Homeless Shelter in Warner Robins and fewer than 1 percent were living in unsheltered situations.

The Houston County school district uses money awarded under the federal Education for Homeless Children Youth Grant to track its homeless student population and to refer them to available services.

More than $2 million is spent every year in Georgia under the Education for Homeless Children Youth Grant, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

The Houston school district uses money from the grant and from the federal Title I program to provide emergency aid for immunizations and ear, eye and dental exams to homeless students, to assist them in obtaining lost or missing birth certificates, and to provide them with a homeless liaison.

“Bookbags and school supplies are distributed to homeless families newly enrolling in the system,” the report said. “Schools utilize homeless tutorial funds, at the discretion of the school, and all students in all grades receive a selection of books and home literacy projects to complete during the summer to help reduce the achievement gap.”

Working with shelters

Mothers and their children who are victims of domestic violence are given shelter at the Salvation Army Safe House in Warner Robins. The shelter has the capacity for 18 people, and most families stay about two months.

About 20 children of school age stay at the shelter every year, said Kristin Jones, case manager.

To explain how the Houston County school district homeless liaison helps students already enrolled in the district, Jones gave the example of a Spanish-speaking mother of two who stayed at the shelter with her children earlier this year.

The Houston school district allows children in families that lose their permanent residence to remain at the school they attended at the start of the school year. A big part of what T’Shunta Rambert does as the homeless liaison is arrange transportation for them from their temporary residence to the school.

Rambert arranged for transportation for the mother to the district central office where they met with an interpreter, and she arranged for her child who was of school age to be taken to the school the family was used to.

The Houston school district also provided coats and shoes for both of the woman’s children.

”We don’t want to create barriers,” Rambert said. “We want stability at school.”

Jones said Rambert follows up with her often to check on how the children living in the shelter are doing.

“The program has been a great help,” Jones said. “Miss Rambert has been awesome.”

Students in families transitioning between living situations, especially victims of domestic violence, need understanding and empathy, Jones said.

“When you are a victim of domestic violence or you witness a parent being abused, whether it’s emotional, physical or verbal, and then you have to leave your home and go to an unfamiliar place and have to live with people you do not know, that’s adding more stress and more trauma to an event that’s already traumatic,” Jones said.

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