ASHEVILLE – By the end of the school year, coordinators for Buncombe County and Asheville City schools anticipate around 850 students will have experienced homelessness.
In a city where the homeless population is on the rise according to a recent Point in Time count, which is conducted according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s definition of homelessness, area school systems have also seen an increase in numbers.
According to Jessica Supik, the homeless and foster care liaison with Asheville City Schools, ACS has identified 216 homeless students during its 2021-22 school year, 30 of which are “unaccompanied homeless youth” — meaning those not in the physical custody of a parent or guardian.
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Buncombe County Schools identified 558 students, 110 of which are unaccompanied, said BCS spokesperson Stacia Harris.
These numbers were presented at the May 27 Homeless Initiative Advisory meeting.
Chair Sara Coplai said she had not known this level of specifics on school data.
“The unaccompanied homeless youth (numbers are) really frightening,” she said. “That is 215 children. I mean, these are children.”
There are a few days in the school year left to report, and both Supik and Shannon Boyd, the homeless and foster care liaison with Buncombe County Schools, said they anticipate those numbers to grow before the final count.
“So total for our school year this year, we’re going to be looking at possibly around 850 homeless students identified just in Buncombe County, alone,” Supik said.
These students are part of the McKinney-Vento program, created by federal law in 1987 and designed to increase the school enrollment, attendance and success of children and
youths who are experiencing homelessness.
Supik said there’s a lack of community awareness pertaining to this population.
“We know Asheville is very aware of the homeless population, but we don’t know if Asheville is aware of what we’re seeing in the schools as far as family and children homelessness goes,” she said.
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Results from Asheville’s most recent Point-in-Time count show there was a 21% increase of people experiencing literal homelessness in the city since 2021 and twice as many people who were unsheltered.
The latest count, completed Jan. 25, identified 637 experiencing homelessness, including 232 who were unsheltered.
The federal definition of literal homelessness includes those in shelters, transitional housing and unsheltered — it does not include people who are doubled-up, meaning they are sleeping on couches of family and friends or sharing the housing of another person due to the loss of housing or economic hardship.
However, the school system’s count does include those who are doubled-up, which is one reason for the higher numbers of students experiencing homelessness in the ACS and BCS counts.
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Another reason for differing counts is that McKinney-Vento data is accumulative across the school year. Students are still included in the count if they have received permanent housing or moved to other districts throughout the year.
By law, a student is provided McKinney-Vento services until the end of the year once they are identified to ensure additional support even if permanent housing is received, said Supik.
Point in Time is only a snapshot of a single night in January.
Supik said she anticipates some overlap between the school count and the Point in Time — if the school system knows of a student who is living in their car or unsheltered during the count, it provides the city that information.
The McKinney-Vento law defines homeless children and youths to be those who lack a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence, said Stacia Harris, BCS spokesperson.
This could include sharing the housing of others, living in a hotel/motel or campground, living in a shelter, unsheltered or substandard housing.
Previous reporting on the program: No place to call home
Because of these differing definitions, some homeless students and families don’t meet the HUD definition of chronically homeless and often don’t qualify for certain housing programs and assistance.
Unaccompanied homeless youths, also on the rise, up in BCS from 75 in the 2020-21 school year to 110 this year, can be due to factors such as family conflict or crisis, parental incarceration, substance abuse, illness or death, or foster care issues.
Exacerbating the desperation are mental health and emotional crises in the school systems “unlike anything we’ve seen before,” said Supik.
“We just don’t have the resources to provide the mental health and emotional assistance right now,” she said.
There are 12- to 16-week waiting lists for some mental health services.
When a student is determined eligible for the McKinney-Vento program, they have the right to free, appropriate public education, immediate enrollment, even if lacking documents, transportation and education services comparable to those of other students.
Past numbers and demographics
Numbers this school year are on the rise when compared to 2020-21, in part, said Supik, because students are back in school and counts are more accurate.
Boyce noted that the county is seeing significantly more students experiencing unaccompanied homelessness — with kids leaving home and couch surfing, living in cars and working full-time jobs while also attending school.
Harris said the numbers of McKinney-Vento students living tripled-up or quadrupled-up is higher than pre-pandemic numbers.
“This is due to a number of factors to include stagnant wages and housing challenges,” Harris said. “Families are unable to afford housing and have resorted to living with other families.”
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Housing is everything, Supik and Boyce stressed, and with prices rising, landlords selling homes out from under families and a lack of affordable housing, the need is growing.
Below is the number of identified McKinney-Vento students per school year, according to the presentation:
Asheville City Schools
- 2021-22: 216
- 2020-21: 155
- 2019-20: 164
- 2018-19: 212
- 2017-18: 192
Buncombe County Schools
- 2021-22: 558
- 2020-21: 544
- 2019-20: 581
- 2018-19: 636
- 2017-18: 647
Of the students experiencing homelessness this school year, the vast majority are living doubled-up.
In ACS, 183 students are doubled-up, with 16 in shelters, 15 in hotel/motels and two unsheltered.
Of these students, demographic data indicates that 54.2% of the students are Black or African American and 23.6% are white.
In BCS, with 524 reported, 387 students are doubled-up, 60 in shelters, 27 in hotel/motels and 50 unsheltered.
Of these students, 62.8% are white and 20.5% are Black or African American.
Where can students go for help?
This report from Supik and Boyce comes in the wake of the closure of Trinity Place, a longtime shelter for runaway and homeless youths across Western North Carolina, what Supik called a “huge” loss.
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Support for students is offered through grant funding, collaboration and coordination with local agencies and the Buncombe County Schools Family Resource Center, which provides case management, food bags, clothing, laundry/detergent kits, furniture, bedding and more.
In April, the Buncombe County Schools Foundation submitted an application to the county for $3.5 million of COVID-19 recovery funds in the hopes of financing an expansion of the resource center and moving the facility to a more central location.
“We really want to continue doing the work that we’re doing and making sure that our families have the opportunities other identified homeless populations have,” Supik said.
Sarah Honosky is the city government reporter for the Asheville Citizen Times, part of the USA TODAY Network. News Tips? Email [email protected] or message on Twitter at @slhonosky.