Behind her wide smile, 9-year-old Jia Dowling hides a secret.
For the past six months, the Bernd Elementary School fourth-grader never told her friends at school that she was homeless.
Her school even donated a red polo shirt and khaki pants that she wears.
“We didn’t have any,” her mom, Renne, said while sitting on a friend’s couch in east Macon, where they’ve been staying since leaving New York this past fall.
“People don’t think (homelessness) happens to those who work, but it does,” she said.
And studies show it’s happening more often.
Homelessness among school-age children is not only on the increase statewide and nationally, but it’s also up in Macon, where almost one in every 50 Bibb County public school students is considered homeless.
So far this school year, 532 Bibb students have been classified as homeless. That’s an increase from 403 last school year and 103 in 2006-07.
Houston County schools, by comparison, have about 200 students considered homeless, mostly families living with another family.
The spate of job losses and the battered economy are largely to blame for the spike, officials said.
“It’s shocking — and painful,” said Bibb County school board member Tommy Barnes, who himself was laid off from his job at The Medical Center of Central Georgia in November. “If I was a one-family income, we could easily be in the same situation.
“We used to view the homeless as those who had a mental prognosis who didn’t want to work or not desirable, but the face of homelessness has changed.”
WHO’S CONSIDERED HOMELESS?
Under Georgia Department of Education guidelines, when students don’t have a permanent address, they are classified as homeless. That could mean they live in a hotel, a shelter or even with another family because of a hardship.
“The traditional picture is someone who lives in a car or on the street,” said Lisa Herring, Bibb County’s director of student support services. “We have a high transient area and more families temporarily living together. That really impacts the numbers.”
Jia Dowling falls into this category.
Three years ago while the family was living in New York, her mother was stabbed by an ex-boyfriend. He was later sent to prison.
When Renne got a letter in the mail saying that the man was about to be released, she grabbed some clothes and left for Macon to stay with a couple she knew.
Because Renne has no bills in her name to help show proof of address, the Georgia Department of Education and the Bibb County school system have considered Jia homeless.
Friday, the Dowlings did find a rental home in east Macon to move into.
This school year, another nine homeless students stayed in Macon’s Salvation Army shelter, and two school-age children were staying at the Macon Rescue Mission last week.
Central High School, which has four shelters in its school zone, has had 81 homeless students this school year.
A 1987 federal law requires school systems to document and aid homeless students by helping them enroll in school and provide transportation, among other stipulations.
Barriers for these students include embarrassment, hunger, more sicknesses than usual and lack of sleep, clothing and transportation. Sometimes they’re also less proficient in school, school officials and experts say.
About 25 percent of homeless students in Georgia do graduate from high school, and those who drop out earn an estimated $200,000 less in a lifetime than a high school graduate does, a recent study showed.
Although the federal law has been in place for about two decades, because of the detrimental effects as well as higher accountability standards for schools, Bibb County began to beef up its training of principals in 2007 to spot student homelessness, Herring said.
One indicator comes at the beginning of the school year, she said, when parents fill out address forms and list no permanent address.They also get referrals from shelters and community organizations as well as identifying signs in their classrooms.
“Part of our goal has been to increase the number of students appropriately identified under that (federal) law and meet these definitions,” Superintendent Sharon Patterson said. “That’s probably more of the reason we see our (higher) numbers. We’re helping our people better identify more of these young people.”
RECESSION TO BLAME
Local and national experts blame the recession for the increase in child homelessness.
The Mentors Project of Bibb County, which helps low-income students stay in school, has been called to help 12 displaced students in just the past three weeks — a high for the group, Executive Director June O’Neal said.
“I think the reason the Mentors Project is a referral base is educators know children can’t focus on academics if children are without a safe place to live, and I think the economy, domestic violence, fires and lack of employment come together to create more displaced students than in the past.”
Their office has been busy taking furniture, food, school supplies and school uniforms to homeless families. One of them is Devon Sullivan and her eight children, who lost everything but some red velvet couches last month when a burning candle started a fire in their apartment.
“I don’t have relatives here. I didn’t know where to go,” said Sullivan, who worked at a nursing home. Some of her children, who attend Appling Middle and Northeast High School, were declared homeless, and they also got assistance from the school system.
The Red Cross of Central Georgia responded to 13 house fires in the first couple of weeks of March that displaced low-income families that had no insurance. Many of the families had school-age children.
The Salvation Army in Macon has had nine school-aged children staying in their shelter in the first three months this year, compared with a total of 24 in all of 2007 and 24 in 2008.
“In the last few years, we have had a steady increase in homelessness, and (so far) this year we’ve had a real upsurge,” said Peggy Steele, the Salvation Army’s development director and office manager. “We attribute it to the downturn in the economy.”
The Georgia Department of Education said that statistics on the number of homeless students for the current school year aren’t yet available. The department noted that there was an increase of more than 2,000 students considered homeless from the 2006-07 to the 2007-08 school year, from 13,311 students to 15,700.
And national tallies for child homelessness continue to climb, according to a study this month by the National Center on Family Homelessness.
The study ranked Georgia 47th among the 50 states in the number of homeless children, with an estimated 58,397 children without permanent homes. The figures used in the report were from the 2005-06 school year, the year Hurricane Katrina likely fueled an increase.
But starting in 2008, different national groups started reporting numbers “skyrocketing,” which means the numbers are probably higher than the study’s findings, said Ellen Bassuk, president of the group.
“It could mean every classroom will have a homeless kid,” Bassuk said. “The economic recession is the overriding reason — and the very staggering number of home foreclosures.”
In the study, Georgia is cited among the top 10 states for having the most home foreclosures in 2008.
More importantly, Bassuk said, is that many states such as Georgia aren’t planning long term to support or prevent homelessness. Most people don’t realize the enormity of child homelessness in their own community.
People could help by donating food, resources or simply their time to community organizations such as at the Salvation Army on a regular basis.
“People have no clue about this. There’s no way you would see this problem,” Bassuk said. As the recession continues, though, “it’s going to get worse. Georgia had better pay attention to it.”
To contact writer Julie Hubbard, call 744-4331.