Hamilton County Schools works to address rise in homeless students

As in the rest of the nation, the number of homeless students attending Hamilton County Schools has risen dramatically since the onset of the pandemic, according to district officials.

"Homelessness of our families has skyrocketed and, in our district, right here, we've had an increase in students that have stated that their home situation has been altered, and that's either through the pandemic, through the tornado, or loss of employment," Director of Safe Supportive Learning at Hamilton County Schools Karen Glenn said at a board meeting this month. "And grief and loss support has increased as well."

Of the 43,000 students that attend Hamilton County Schools, 2,000 of them are homeless, Chief of Equity and Advocacy Marsha Drake said in a phone call.

"We have really experienced a lot of students self-reporting. So, we have a lot of unaccompanied youth that has increased," Drake said. "What we see oftentimes is they're couch surfing, staying at friends' homes, going from house to house. We've really seen an increase of that."

A portion of the district's nearly $142 million in federal COVID-19 relief dollars have been used to provide additional resources and supplies for homeless students.

Before the pandemic, Drake said, "we would have a summer, two-week camp. And then we provided uniforms for students, supplies that they needed."

With the relief dollars, the district is now providing transportation services as well.

"The big bucket item of that budget that we have is the transportation," Drake said. "We all know that it is in their best interest to remain in their home zone school, the school that they were attending. So, regardless if they are a student that is experiencing homelessness, we provide the transportation to that school from where they're living."

According to data from the Chattanooga Regional Homeless Coalition, the number of homeless students has nearly tripled since March 2020, a jump from 300 to nearly 900.

To accommodate the additional need, Hamilton County Schools has also ramped up food pantries, which are set up like a grocery store where students can shop, Drake said.

The Hamilton County Schools Foundation also received a grant to open up "care closets," Drake said. Beyond uniforms, the closets offer a variety of hygiene products, backpacks, sleeping bags and other things.

"With that funding too, we are not only in those care closets, able to provide them with their needs but with some of their wants, some of the items that their peers have," Drake said, citing electronic accessories like earbuds instead of wired headphones.

While the district is making some progress, there's still a long way to go, Drake said.

"We're working on solving it, and we're working on a solution," Drake said. "I just wish that solution and those solutions were available at a faster rate."

Contact Carmen Nesbitt at [email protected] or 423-757-6327. Follow her on Twitter @carmen_nesbitt.