Homelessness affects students, while school system offers support

Students struggle with unusual living circumstances

Abby Gillenwater

Where to go now? A Sevier Middle School model poses for a photo outside of the school building. Thirty-one homeless students at John Sevier Middle School find themselves without a steady home at the end of the school day.

Hannah Conkin, John Sevier MS, Kingsport, Tenn.

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Editor’s Note: The Scribe has changed the names of the homeless students featured to protect their privacy.

There are 798 students enrolled at John Sevier Middle school. Thirty-one of these students are homeless. They are part of a homeless group of 189 students across Kingsport City Schools. These students are proof that anything can happen to anyone at any given time.

“[Being homeless] was bad,” says Christina, a former student at John Sevier Middle School, who was homeless on and off for two years.

“We stayed with friends, then relatives. It was crowded. Our stuff was in storage. I had to sleep on the floor most of the time. I never knew when we would have to move or where we would go.”

According to the federal government, homelessness has a very broad definition. Most people who are homeless stay with family, friends or at homeless shelters. Some stay in tents, cars and sometimes outside of shopping centers. What happens when a student finds him- or herself in a homeless situation?

Kingsport City School’s Homeless Education Program (HEP) helps students who are experiencing homelessness. The program strives to keep students in their original school, even if they find themselves outside of their school’s zone. The system’s Transportation Department helps students who cannot get to and from their school due to homelessness. HEP also sometimes provides students with appropriate clothing.

The reason HEP tries to keep students in the same school is to prevent academic gaps.

“Students experiencing homelessness often encounter educational challenges that their housed peers do not,” says Michele Wilder, Kingsport City Schools’ Coordinator of Homeless Education.

“If they move around a lot, this can affect their school attendance and lead to academic gaps. I’ve had students move here from another state who were already a month behind because the school they last attended began the school year after Labor Day – so that automatically puts the students at a disadvantage.”

Mrs. Wilder understands how frustrating academic gaps can be for students, especially when also experiencing homelessness.

“Trying to catch up when you’re that far behind can be very discouraging and frustrating. That is why school stability is so important,” says Mrs. Wilder.

How do families suddenly find themselves homeless?

“A lot of these families I work with are victims of circumstance – they are evicted because a landlord defaulted on a loan or an illness, job loss or family break-up has caused the family to fall on hard times financially,” says Mrs. Wilder

“In fact, had the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act been in place when I was in elementary school, I would have been qualified for my own program twice: once because my mother lost her job when I was in 3rd grade and we had to move in with relatives and the second time because our home burned when I was in 5th grade.”

Kendra, who is a John Sevier student, is homeless. She is a typical middle school student. She enjoys listening to music and hopes to be a singer one day.

Kendra and her mother were in a car wreck. Her mother nearly lost her leg. Now, Kendra’s mother is disabled and cannot work.

Today, Kendra and her siblings are staying with her mother’s life partner.

“My brother sleeps in the kitchen. I sleep with my little sister and my big sister in a really small room,” Kendra says. “It’s a tight space.”

Christina, a former Sevier Warrior, was homeless for two years.

“When I was at Sevier, we lost our apartment. We didn’t have any money or a car,” Christina says. “My mom wouldn’t go to a shelter because we couldn’t take our pets.”

Today, Christina has a home and her own room. She sleeps on a mattress on the floor and she keeps her clothes in a basket.

Jessie is a current Sevier Warrior. She was homeless for part of the current school year. Jessie moved from out of state in July and stayed at a motel. Her mother attempted to look for work. When Jessie’s stepdad left, her family ran out of money.

“We are living in an apartment now. My mom has a job. The shelter helped us get a home,” says Jessie.

Marcus is a Sevier Warrior who was homeless from September until November. “Being homeless was unbearable,” says Marcus.

“I was in a shelter. We didn’t get along with other people there. There were ten or more people there. There were lots of rules, and people didn’t respect our privacy.”

Marcus now lives in an apartment and he has his own room.

Being a homeless student really takes a toll. Homeless students often have trouble concentrating, and as a result their grades are lower.

“I got in fights at school. I was tired a lot,” says former Sevier student Christina. “I couldn’t keep up with homework or do projects because I didn’t have any way to get the stuff.”

Kendra agrees. “It’s hard to pay attention in class because I’m up a lot at night.”

Middle School students can be cruel to each other sometimes. How do they treat homeless students?

“Some kids knew [about my homelessness] and were nice. Some kids were mean and then I would fight them if they said anything,” Christina says.

Kendra agrees. “Sometimes I get made fun of for not having nice clothes,” says Kendra. “All of our money goes toward the light bill and stuff.”

Homeless students stay in many different places with many different people. Naturally, they have many different definitions of “home”.

“Home is just where you sleep and eat. I haven’t had a steady home in a while,” says Marcus.

Jessie has a very different take on what home means. “[Home is] having family together, not where you are.”

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