More homeless students reflects a housing crisis

Kathy Johnson, executive director of Oak City Cares, leads a new effort to coordinate services for the homeless, including homeless children in Wake County.
Kathy Johnson, executive director of Oak City Cares, leads a new effort to coordinate services for the homeless, including homeless children in Wake County.

Enrollment numbers for North Carolina’s two largest school districts — Wake County and Charlotte-Mecklenburg — show a downside of rapid growth in the state’s urban counties. The number of homeless students is increasing as housing costs rise.

The student populations of both districts — about 160,000 in Wake and 147,000 in Charlotte-Mecklenburg — have flattened as more families opt for charter and private schools. But inside the traditional public schools, the share of homeless students keeps going up. In Wake the number has risen from 2,736 in the 2014-15 school year to 4,365 during 2018-19. In Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools, the latest numbers available show a spike in homeless students from 3,913 in 2015-16 to 4,598 in 2017-18.

Pat Cotham, a Mecklenburg County commissioner who advocates for the homeless, said, “I’ve been behind a school bus that stops at the women’s shelter. It kind of takes your breath away to see those kids pile out of there.”

In addition to shelters, many homeless students are staying in low-cost motels and hotels because their parent or parents can’t afford the deposit for an apartment, or can’t get a lease because of bad credit or a prior eviction.

Lisa Rowe, executive director of Families Together, a nonprofit that assists the homeless, said the number of Wake students staying in hotels and motels has risen from 225 during the 2014-15 school year to 929 in 2018-19.

“They’re staying in budget motels that are kind of scary,” Rowe said. “There’s no place to do homework, no place to play.”

Overall, she said, the number of homeless students in Wake County has grown by 41 percent in the last three years. In addition, her group estimates there are 1,680 younger (not yet school-aged) homeless children. “It’s just mind-boggling,” she said.

The rise in homeless students shows that traditional public schools in urban districts are serving a greater concentration of children in poverty. And those children are under more stress as a strong local economy drives up the cost of housing.

With higher-income residents moving into Wake and Mecklenburg counties, there is no incentive to build homes and apartments for low-income residents. Meanwhile, cheap housing in formerly low-income areas is being torn down to make way for more expensive housing. Some homeless people have Section 8 vouchers to subsidize their rent, but they can’t find landlords who will take the vouchers. Meanwhile, homelessness in spreading from the destitute to people who have jobs, but can’t find an affordable lease.

Lavonda Hamilton, 46, of Charlotte, is typical of those caught in a housing squeeze that is adding to the already daunting social challenges faced by public schools. Her daughter and two grandsons live with her in the Lake Arbor Apartments, a complex that is closing for renovations after years of being cited for housing code violations. Her older grandson has started first grade, but she doesn’t know where the family will live — or where he will go to school — after they must leave at the end of this month.

Hamilton has a job, but is having trouble finding an apartment because she was once evicted during a time of financial hardship. “There’s not enough people willing to give people with evictions on their record a second chance,” she said. “I have an eviction on my record, but I am not a bad person.”

Public schools can be the foundation of a good local economy, but when rapid growth puts housing out of reach for too many people, the public schools are challenged by a rise in homeless students. Ensuring that all children have a fair chance to learn will require maintaining an adequate supply of affordable housing through housing laws, subsidies and construction. That must be the priority in Wake and Mecklenburg.