Cox is seeing to it that 59 homeless children are educated in Calhoun County Schools this semester. That number is down drastically from the 244 children she helped in the last academic year, but in the coming months she expects the homeless count to rise.
“I see the big picture,” Cox said. “If you don’t get everything you need outside of school, how are you going to succeed in school?”
Cox, the homeless liaison for Calhoun County Schools, assists homeless children under the McKinney-Vento Homelessness Assistance Act. Signed in 1987, the federal legislation exists to ensure that children without a home don’t also have to be without an education.
Statewide, 18,910 homeless children and youth were enrolled in Alabama’s public schools in 2010-11, according to Alabama Department of Education figures. That same academic year, the number of homeless students in Calhoun County Schools soared after a large-scale tornado struck northern sections of the county in April 2011.
Cox said most of the 77 students displaced by the storm have since found permanent shelter. But at least one Ohatchee family that Cox helped is just now finding shelter in a Habitat for Humanity home. They might not have received the home but for the homeless program.
The Ohatchee family moved into a Bynum home after the storm destroyed their mobile home. Concerned that the move would affect the children’s school attendance, their mother said she reached out to the system in fear, but found hope. (She asked not to be identified, because publicly acknowledging her homelessness would make her uncomfortable.)
“I didn’t want to get into trouble and I wanted to be honest,” the mother said. “I picked up the phone and called the school and told them where I was living at.”
What she found was that her children weren’t in danger of being removed from their school and that there was a program in place to help people in their situation.
Through the program the mother was put in contact with Habitat for Humanity and today she is moving into a new home built just yards from the place the family’s mobile home was destroyed.
“This right here has always been my home and it will always be my home,” she said.
Under the program the school can provide children with free lunch and breakfast, transportation, clothing, counseling services, athletic and graduation fees and several other needs directly related to school attendance. It’s funded by the county school system’s general fund or by a federal grant for homeless children.
The program also ensures children and their families that students will be able to remain in their “school of origin,” even if they are forced to move away from their school district.
Last year Calhoun County Schools received $33,000 in grant funding for the program. Alabama schools received about $1 million for the program, according to the state Department of Education.
Schools who don’t receive grant funding have to find other ways to pay for the services. Cox said even with grant funding she has to be resourceful.
Cox uses several methods to identify children who don’t have permanent homes. She discovers them through student residency questionnaires, school counselors and conversations with families.
The two most common forms of homelessness among Calhoun County Schools’ students, she said, are those who are “doubled up” or “unaccompanied youth.” Doubled-up families are those forced to live with friends or relatives because they’ve lost their homes. Unaccompanied youth are usually high school students who have been forced out of their homes, Cox said.
Some live in cars; others “couch surf,” staying with friends.
The transportation costs in particular can add up, depending on where a child’s school is and where she is living. One year the system paid $7,000 in taxicab fare for one family staying in an Anniston homeless shelter to get to a county school. That might seem like a lot, Cox agreed, but grant rules bar spending the money on things like rent or utility assistance, she said.
When the money runs out, Cox turns to community partners, such as Word Alive International Outreach in Oxford. With help from partners, Cox is able to provide homeless students with things the school system can’t legally buy with grant funding. Last year, Cox was able to help four girls buy dresses and have their hair, makeup and nails done for prom, thanks to aid from a community partner.
“A lot of times kids can’t go on the field trips,” Cox said. “It’s things like that I can do with some donated funds that I can’t do with my grant funds.”
The work is difficult, she said. It requires days on the road, scheduling, and a lot of resourcefulness to coordinate programs for the county’s homeless children. But the work, Cox said, is rewarding. She receives endearing “thank yous” from the families and the students she helps.
“I extremely appreciate all of your help with helping get into school,” one student wrote her. “I hope I don’t disappoint you. I’m going to try my best to do a good job.”
Star staff writer Laura Johnson: 256-235-3544. On Twitter @LJohnson_Star.