9 Investigates: CMS identifies thousands of families experiencing homelessness; offers support

CHARLOTTE — Thousands of students in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools are experiencing homelessness and the number only continues to climb.

Channel 9′s education reporter Jonathan Lowe told you about this alarming rise in student homelessness last year.

In only a matter of months, hundreds more students without a stable place to stay at night have been reported to the district.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: 3,300 students are experiencing homelessness so far this school year, CMS says

“We have identified -- as of last week -- over 3,700 students as homeless this school year, and that is one of the quickest rises that we’ve seen in our homeless numbers in quite some time,” said Dr. Cotrane Penn, the executive director of student wellness and academic support with CMS.

“If we continue to grow at the rate we’re growing, which I honestly hope that we do not, but if we do, then yes, we could see 5,000 homeless children in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools by June,” she said.

‘Our circumstances are not us’

Eboni Etherly and her kids have been experiencing homelessness as a family for the last 6 months.

She told Channel 9 she recently escaped years of physical, mental and financial domestic violence and has been living at the Salvation Army Center of Hope shelter as the family got back on its feet.

“I tell them that our circumstances are not us,” Etherly said. “You are either about to enter into a storm, you’re in the storm or you’re exiting the storm.”

Her positive outlook helped the family through the obstacles, Etherly said, but she also received assistance from the school district.

2021 COVERAGE: CMS sees increase in students facing housing insecurity

“I would not be able to do it if it was not for my strong support system. McKinney-Vento, I’m so grateful,” she said.

The McKinney-Vento Act is a federal legislation that requires school districts to provide students experiencing homelessness with the key services necessary to help them succeed in school.

Transportation, meals, school supplies, social worker services and graduation counseling are all among the services. In CMS, students benefitting from McKinney-Vento services have a 97% graduation rate compared to 83% districtwide.

Find more information on Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools’ McKinney-Vento services HERE

“They do not hold them to being late for school or being out of uniform, and that is such a relief,” Etherly said. “They reimburse me for my gas. I was able now to feed my children, it’s literally that real.”

Meeting students’ needs

Dr. Cotrane Penn oversees McKinney-Vento services for CMS.

As the number of people experiencing homelessness continues to increase across Mecklenburg County, Penn says the who she is helping has been eye opening.

READ MORE: CMS focuses on cutting down on chronic absences, keeping kids in classrooms

“Are there truly CMS teachers that are homeless?” Channel 9′s Jonathan Lowe asked.

“Absolutely, yes. Absolutely,” Penn said. “Many of our homeless families are mothers and children who are escaping domestic violence.”

She says 98% of them are working families that are struggling under wages that haven’t kept pace with the cost of living.

The McKinney-Vento resources CMS and other districts offer are partially funded by an annual $1.4 million allotment to North Carolina from the federal government. When the state of North Carolina divvies up its portion, CMS ends up with $75,000.

The amount of funding -- or lack thereof -- has become a point of contention for some local leaders.

Regardless, Penn says CMS finds other means of funding to ensure the federal mandate is met, and students and their families receive the support necessary for success.

Etherly said it is the McKinney-Vento staff that have ensured her and her children have been fed -- not just literally -- but also mentally.

“Feeling like they’re worthy, feeling like they’re amazing, literally speaking life,” she said.

Since Channel 9 first spoke with Etherly and her children the family has moved out of the shelter and into a new apartment with the help of the Salvation Army Center of Hope.

How you can help

More information on McKinney-Vento services in your area:

(WATCH BELOW: Meck County assesses people experiencing homelessness to direct help to them)

Jonathan Lowe

Jonathan Lowe, wsoctv.com

Jonathan is a reporter for WSOC-TV.