Homeless students receive aid from grant

By Monroe Roark
Times Correspondent

What are the chances that the student sitting next to your child in class every day is homeless?

Better than you might think.

Right now about 700 students in the Henry County School System are categorized that way under the McKinney-Vento Act, a federal law originally written in 1987 and amended every so often (the last time in 2015). It may define “homeless” in a broader way than many people realize, but it refers to students who are living in motels, doubling up with other families in houses because they don’t have homes of their own as well as those who might be living in cars or similar situations.

During the 2015-2016 school year the district identified 1,054 students as homeless, according to Marsha Belflower, who works for the district solely as a homeless liaison. She expects the number for this year to increase as time goes on.

“Most people, especially in this county, would be surprised to know [the number is so high],” said Belflower, who began in this role in July and has a nonprofit child advocacy background.

Typically a student is categorized this way after being unable to prove residency. An assessment by a social worker determines whether the student qualifies for benefits under McKinney-Vento. That starts with the ability to enroll in the school system without documents.

“We try to prevent any barriers to enrollment,” said Belflower, adding that every single public school in the county is represented by these children.

For students who qualify, assistance is received with such matters as obtaining updated copies of birth certificates and immunizations. Children receive free breakfast and lunch at their respective schools, and the district sometimes helps out with transportation to keep students in their schools of origin.

“Unfortunately some of these families move around constantly,” said Belflower. “Some of them end up out of the county. We try to help them keep up so they lose as little school as necessary.”

Transient students often get behind in their schoolwork, and the district offers free tutoring and credit recovery assistance to combat that. This is paid for through a combination of McKinney-Vento funds (a federal grant) and the school system’s Title I budget.

It is not surprising that families are sometimes hesitant to identify themselves as homeless for fear of what might happen to them. “We have some who are afraid that DFACS will be contacted or they just don’t want the government involved in their family,” said Belflower.

“We like to promote our service as a way your child is protected. We want to protect your children for the school year and help them in any way we can.”

The district is always looking for community partners who can assist with donations of school supplies, coats, food, and trial-size hygiene items such as shampoo and soap.

For more information visit http://schoolwires.henry.k12.ga.us/