Charles E. Richardson

And we wonder why some children are ‘off the chain’

When I was growing up there were things I never worried about. I always had food in my stomach. It may not have been exactly what I wanted, but being a “picky eater” wasn’t an option in my mother’s house. And while I always dreamed of having an Ozzie and Harriet type home rather than the projects where we lived, I always had a roof over my head. I don’t remember having to live in extremes with the exception of summer’s heat. The old swamp box just couldn’t keep up after we left Los Angeles for Stockton’s Big Valley.

Food and shelter were givens. I had a sense of security that I carried long after leaving home. I always knew I had a place where I could, if need be, come back to. That is unfortunately not the case for too many young people today. Too many young people have no home.

The total number of homeless American students, identified as such by local educational agencies, was more than 1.2 million for 2014-2015 school year. And that number only accounts for students enrolled and doesn’t include dropouts or children too young to be enrolled in school. I’m sure there were homeless children in the 1950s and ‘60s, but I didn’t know or see them.

According to America’s Promise Alliance, to be considered homeless, a student has to lack “a fixed, regular, and adequate night-time residence. This definition specifically includes children and youth living in emergency shelters and transitional housing; cars, campgrounds, and other places not meant for human habitation; hotels or motels due to lack of adequate alternative arrangements; and sharing the housing of others temporarily due to loss of housing, economic hardships, or similar reasons.”

This is not a problem of somewhere else. The area school systems generally know who the children are who are living out of motel rooms, and in some cases, the school systems are paying for the rooms. Hard to believe, isn’t it? According to the alliance, 37,791 students in Georgia’s public schools are homeless, 2.1 percent, and that number has risen, 18.82 percent since 2010-2011.

According to data from the Institute for Children, Poverty & Homelessness, about two in every 10 extremely poor 6-17 year-olds were homeless in Georgia. What does that mean? It means there are children living at or below 50 percent of the federal poverty level. For a family of three, that’s $11,740 annually.

Why am I telling you all of this and why now? It’s summer and school is out, and some folks are wondering why school districts such as Bibb County provide summer meals at more than 70 sites across the county. Boys and Girls Clubs provide meals for participants in its programs, too, because if they didn’t, children would go hungry. According to the Annie E. Casey Kids Count report, the number of children in poverty here was 41.6 percent in 2015. There is good news. In 2013 that number was three points higher.

In a couple of blinks of the eye, children and their teachers will be getting back at it. I want everyone to be armed with the information so that the next time you hear a politician pontificate about what a school is or is not doing, ask them what are they doing to address some of the root causes of poverty. When a child has no home, they have more pressing problems than trying to memorize multiplication tables. And as Gov. Nathan Deal gets his program ramped up for saving “failing schools,” I would submit that unless his part of the plan is designed to address conditions outside the schools’ walls is robust, success inside the walls will be limited.

Students who have nowhere to lay their heads at night are chronically absent, have more disciplinary issues and fail more courses. The longer they are homeless, the longer these issues persist — and get worse. And we wonder why some children are off the chain? Not having a place to put your stuff plays havoc with one’s sense of security.

Widespread poverty is all the more reason teachers and school administrators need to know the family situations of their students. Allene Magill, head of the Professional Association of Georgia Educators calls it, “Knowing your who.” That’s more important now than ever before.