Helping the 350 home­less chil­dren who at­tend schools in Ca­toosa County

The Catoosa County News - - FRONT PAGE - By Ta­mara Wolk Correspondent

Imag­ine you’re 8 or 10 years old. Or 15 or 16. For one rea­son or an­other you have no real home to call your own. No bed of your own, much less a bed­room. Your clothes and a few toys or per­sonal pos­ses­sions are in your back­pack or a plas­tic gro­cery bag. Your fam­ily is stay­ing with Aunt Jane and Un­cle Joe, who are none too happy about it.

Or maybe you’re all stay­ing at a friend’s house or in a mo­tel. The hol­i­days are com­ing up but there’s noth­ing spe­cial in sight for you — not for Christ­mas and not be­yond.

That’s the ba­sic sit­u­a­tion of more than 350 chil­dren and young peo­ple in Ca­toosa County schools.

“There’s a prob­lem of in­vis­i­ble home­less­ness in our area,” says Ca­toosa Schools so­cial worker and home­less li­ai­son Melissa Hol­combe. “Fam­i­lies are liv­ing dou­bled up or in places not nor­mally used for habi­ta­tion be­cause par­ents have lost jobs or have sub­stance abuse or mental health prob­lems. Chil­dren live in tense and un­pre­dictable cir­cum­stances where they know their fam­i­lies could have to leave at a mo­ment’s no­tice. They’re walk­ing on eggshells. They see and feel the con­flict and in­sta­bil­ity.”

While all this tur­moil is go­ing on in chil­dren’s lives, they’re ex­pected to keep up their aca­demic per­for­mance, even in the face of chang­ing schools once or more a year. Hol- combe says that stud­ies show that chil­dren iden­ti­fied as home­less lose three to six months of aca­demic gains ev­ery time they must switch schools. This is one of many is­sues Hol­combe and those she works with help to re­solve for chil­dren al­ready fac­ing so much trauma in their young lives.

“If a child’s fam­ily has to move to an­other school zone, that’s one more ma­jor dis­rup­tion in their life and ed­u­ca­tion. We do all we can to keep them in the school they’ve be­come ac­cus­tomed to. We see if there’s a way we can bus them to their school of ori­gin or we’ll pro­vide gas vouch­ers so par­ents can drive them to school.”

Hol­combe also works with the school sys­tem, so­cial ser­vice agen­cies, churches and in­di­vid­u­als to get cloth­ing and school sup­plies for chil­dren, to pay for field trips and ex­tracur­ric­u­lar ac­tiv­i­ties and to pro­vide food. “We have one church that gives stu­dents L.L. Bean back­packs as a way of say­ing ‘You’re worth spend­ing ex­tra on.’”

As needed, chil­dren in grades K-8 who are ex­pe­ri­enc­ing home­less­ness are also pro­vided with one-onone tu­tors. Even af­ter a child catches up aca­dem­i­cally, they keep their tu­tor. The pro­gram has been marked a “Best Prac­tice” by the Ge­or­gia Depart­ment of Ed­u­ca­tion and is rec­om­mended to other school sys­tems.

An­other pro­gram started in Ca­toosa County schools and deemed a “Best Prac­tice” by GADOE is Case Man­age­ment for Se­niors. “We have older stu­dents who have left home for var­i­ous rea­sons,” says Hol­combe. “The chance they’ll drop out of school is high. We’ve had stu­dents who were liv­ing in tents, drift­ing from one friend’s home to an­other. One young man told us when he was at a friend’s house he tried not to eat any­thing be­cause he didn’t want to be viewed as a bur­den and not wel­comed back.”

For these young peo­ple, the school sys­tem and its part­ners help with phys­i­cal needs — cloth­ing, food, etc. — but they also do all they can to help young peo­ple “grad­u­ate and get si­t­u­ated.” That in­cludes ev­ery­thing from tu­tor­ing to help fill­ing out col­lege or work ap­pli­ca­tions, find­ing schol­ar­ships and pay­ing for a stu­dent’s grad­u­a­tion cap and gown.

“We also pay for a den­tal workup and treat­ment that’s needed,” says Hol- combe. “Even if a stu­dent is el­i­gi­ble for Med­i­caid, it of­ten doesn’t cover den­tal work.”

Hol­combe says that the young peo­ple’s emo­tional needs are kept in mind, too. They re­ceive birth­day greet­ings with gift cards in them, and donors never know the iden­tity of the stu­dents they’re helping. “We re­spect their pri­vacy and dig­nity,” says Hol­combe. “It’s hard to be on the re­ceiv­ing end so much. I tell stu­dents when they feel un­com­fort­able about all the help they’re get­ting that we all need each other and we all need help some­times. Their turn will come to help some­one else. Some of them are al­ready reach­ing out to help.”

There are cur­rently 15 Ca­toosa stu­dents, with up to 30 ex­pected by the end of the school year, who are part of the Case Man­age­ment for Se­niors pro­gram, says Hol­combe. “We have grad­u­ates who have been part of the pro­gram and are now in col­lege or the mil­i­tary or work­ing. Last year, one of our stu­dents got close to $100,000 in schol­ar­ships.”

Hol­combe says one prob­lem in Ca­toosa County is that there isn’t much af­ford­able hous­ing for fam­i­lies hav­ing fi­nan­cial prob­lems. There are also no shel­ters fam­i­lies in cri­sis can turn to, she says.

“We’re do­ing all we can,” says Hol­combe, “but we’re also search­ing out other op­tions and ways to help. I would like to see a home­less shel­ter for fam­i­lies and a youth hos­tel. We also need to look at ways to cre­ate more af­ford­able hous­ing.”

In the mean­time, says Hol­combe, “pro­grams through the schools and peo­ple and groups within the com­mu­nity will keep work­ing to as­sure the suc­cess of our stu­dents ex­pe­ri­enc­ing home­less­ness.”

To learn more about how to help, email mhol­[email protected] ca­toosa.k12.ga.us.

/ Con­tributed

Chil­dren and their fam­i­lies are con­sid­ered home­less not only if they find them­selves liv­ing on the street but if they are liv­ing in tem­po­rary places, in­clud­ing with rel­a­tives or friends, at camp­grounds or at mo­tels, be­cause they can­not af­ford sta­ble hous­ing.

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