Number of homeless students in CMS rising

The closest thing 7-year-old J.D. has to a permanent address is her desk in Ms. Dougherty's second-grade class.

Every morning she arrives at Walter G. Byers Elementary School to find it just as she left it, in the back, near the computer.

In her world, stability – no matter how small – is badly needed. J.D., whose name is withheld to protect her identity, is homeless.

She is part of a disturbing trend at Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. As of June, CMS reported 2,493 homeless students, a 35 percent increase from just two years ago.

Those numbers are likely to increase. Local advocate Annabelle Suddreth said officials expect the subprime housing crisis and declining economy to push that number above 3,000.

“People who have never thought they would deal with this are now a check or two from being homeless,” she said. “I shudder to think how many children will find themselves in this situation now.”

Suddreth is executive director of A Child's Place, a local nonprofit that works with CMS to help homeless children and their families. In the past four years, she has watched the homeless population explode.

It's a trend taking place across the country. Officials with the National Coalition for the Homeless said there are more than 250,000 homeless children in the U.S. on any given day. Michael Stoops, the organization's acting executive director, said he expects those numbers to leap as schools start dealing with more victims from the nation's foreclosure crisis.

“It's sort of like waiting for a hurricane,” he said. “We know it's coming. It's just a matter of when.”

Homeless students wrestle with discipline problems and poor grades. They are twice as likely to miss school for sickness. They are typically two grades behind. And they suffer from anxieties and depression three times as often.

“These children have a whole lot on their plate,” Suddreth said. “They wrestle with issues that no child should have to deal with.”

J.D. – the child's initials – moved to Charlotte from Kansas with her mother in June. They were supposed to stay with her grandmother in Mount Holly, but family troubles pushed them out the door within days of arriving.

The two found shelter at the Center of Hope Women and Children's shelter, run by the Salvation Army. Every day J.D. waits in front of the shelter for the bus that takes her and about 20 other shelter students to school.

Officials send the bus early. It takes the children straight to school, then heads out for the other students. Officials do this to help the homeless kids avoid the stigma associated with homelessness.

“Kids can be mean,” said J.D.'s mother, who also wanted her name withheld. “I wanted to shelter her from this experience as much as possible.”

Officials say homeless students come from all over. Some live in shelters. Some stay in cars. Other stay in motels or live with relatives.

“And those are just the ones we know of,” Suddreth said. “Not everybody is willing to raise their hands and say, ‘I'm homeless.'“

A Child's Place works with CMS in 10 schools, helping homeless families where they can.

Caring for homeless students is not easy. They are frequently shy and withdrawn. They often feel isolated and disconnected from school. As a result, homeless students are likely to have lower self-esteem and higher levels of anxiety than their peers.

“It's a challenge,” said Byers Elementary Principal Terri Edmunds-Heard. “They don't always understand what has happened to them.”

Byers Elementary has more than 100 homeless students, about 20 percent of its student body, the result of its proximity to the Salvation Army shelter.

Edmunds-Heard said this means her teachers have become accustomed to dealing with keeping the students' home life in mind.

They often don't have the supplies needed for homework. They come to school hungry and upset. Teachers have to be part educator, part counselor and sometimes, part parent.

But Edmunds-Heard said the most important thing they can do for homeless children is provide stability.

“They don't have it in their home life and they need to have it somewhere,” she said.