CHARLOTTE — School districts across the country are required by law to provide services for students experiencing homelessness.
The law is called the McKinney Vento Homeless Assistance Act.
Homelessness under McKinney Vento Homeless Assistance Act is defined as youth lacking a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence.
The legislation aims to remove barriers to those vulnerable students being enrolled, attending and being successful in school.
There are many reasons why students can experience homelessness, including escaping an abusive parent or being a refugee.
“We do have a few students who qualify as homeless because they’ve been abandoned in a hospital,” said Elyse Dashew, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools commissioner chair.
Leaders are now taking notice of a sharp spike this school year across the CMS district.
“We have more students experiencing homelessness in Mecklenburg County than in any other county in North Carolina,” Dashew said.
The CMS School Board and Mecklenburg County commissioners recently got a first-ever status report on services for students experiencing homelessness.
“We wanted to find out, ‘Are there any gaps or additional resources needed? What’s the current status of those families, and how can we help?’” said Commissioner Mark Jerrell.
They learned that there are currently more than 3,300 CMS students who fall under that category.
There were just over 4,200 students experiencing homelessness for the entire 2021-2022 school year.
“If it continues at this rate, we could be on track for 5,000 students by the end of this school year,” Dashew said. “Imagine, how do you log in and do your homework? You have no way to do your laundry. So you show up to school with clothes that aren’t clean and you can’t take showers regularly.”
The McKinney Vento Homeless Assistance Act requires school districts to provide services that ensure students have holistic well-being.
Across CMS, that includes things, such as transportation, hygiene products, school supplies, parental reimbursement for rides and even graduation expense coverage.
However, Dashew said most people are not aware of this issue.
“If you are experiencing homelessness, you do qualify for extra support in a discrete way,” she said.
Local officials fear they are falling short due to a lack of federal and state funding with a growing number of CMS students experiencing homelessness.
“The state funding is inadequate,” Jerrell said. “It’s woefully inadequate and frankly, it’s unacceptable. We don’t even have the right number as it relates to how many homeless families and students there are.”
Jerrell said he and his colleagues will take action.
“Hold us accountable to bring information back,” he said. “Give us time to evaluate the information. Give us time to put in some steps that we want to take.”
The district appears to be doing the best it can with what it has.
Dashew said students who qualify for and receive McKinney Vento Services are beating the odds.
“Those students have a 97% graduation rate,” she said. “So it is all about the support.”
CMS currently has a staff of 10 social workers based at schools with the highest concentrations of students who are experiencing homelessness.
The district gets help from 25 organizations and nonprofits that are currently helping CMS provide those MCV services.
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