Around 1,600 Hamilton County Schools students experienced homelessness during the last academic year, district officials estimate.
Four months into the 2022-23 academic year, 1,400 students have been homeless so far. That number, which accounts for August-October, almost matches the totals from 2018-19 and 2019-20 for the entire academic year, and surpasses 2020-21.
"Since COVID, we have seen a significant rise in the number of students that are experiencing homelessness," the district's chief of equity and advocacy, Marsha Drake, said in an interview. "It is as though families have not, and just cannot, completely bounce back."
The numbers have more than tripled since 2017. More children experienced homelessness in the 2021-22 academic year than at any other point in the past five years.
Working single moms with children are among the demographics most commonly experiencing homelessness, Drake said.
"It's not as though they do not have jobs," she said. "The majority of them are working moms that do have jobs that they're going to every day, but it's just not enough to meet the basic needs."
Consistency and familiarity are key to a child's education, Drake said.
But because homeless families are often transient, children can move between multiple school zones in the same year.
"When they move from school to school, then you've got to learn the procedures there," Drake said. "You've got to make friends there and (learn) how they actually do things."
Hamilton County Schools' families-in-transition program works to provide homeless students with as seamless an education as possible.
"The main purpose of our program is to make sure that students are getting an education (and) they're able to stay at their school of origin, so they're not having to bounce around and change schools every time they happen to move," the district's homeless liaison, Laura Grier, said in an interview.
Drake said keeping a child at the same school is about personhood and individuality.
"If they're on any sports teams or participating in clubs, we're preventing that from being taken away," Drake said.
Students experiencing homelessness have a right to their school of origin under the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, a federal law passed in 1987.
The act ensures homeless students have the same educational opportunities as housed students by removing certain barriers to learning.
These barriers include transportation to and from school and extracurriculars; special busing so they can remain at the same school if they move; and guaranteed school enrollment even if they lack required documents, such as immunization records or proof of residence.
"If you're moving often, oftentimes your birth certificate, Social Security card, immunization cards, those things get lost in the move, and it takes money as well as time, appointments and things like that," Drake said.
The district's services, as well as federal protections for homeless students, are essential during moments of crisis, such as the closure of an East Ridge extended-stay motel Nov. 16 that displaced nearly 700 residents. District officials said around 70 minors living at the motel attended Hamilton County Schools.
At 7 that morning, East Ridge and county law enforcement officers told residents of the Budgetel Inn off Interstate 75 that they had around four hours to move out.
The closure came after District Attorney Coty Wamp asked a judge to temporarily shut down the property, citing a high volume of crime. Court documents showed Hamilton County Judge Boyd Patterson signed off on the order Nov. 14.
Drake said the district was notified 24 hours before the morning of Nov. 16 and sent social workers to notify families with school-aged children.
"They were in disbelief, and several of them have been there for a good length of time," Drake said.
Children at the Budgetel Inn were attending many different schools across the county, and though their lives had been suddenly disrupted, they were able to go to school.
"We're making sure that they still have those connections with their teachers, their peers, and that that is seamless," Drake said.
The district is working with other organizations like the Chattanooga Regional Homeless Coalition and area churches to continue to provide for the displaced students.
Drake said all the Budgetel families with children attending Hamilton County Schools have been placed in temporary housing.
Addressing homelessness is an "adult problem," Drake said, meaning children should not be responsible for finding housing, keeping track of documents, securing transportation to get to school or overcoming any other barriers to their own education.
"These are kids," Drake said. "So, although we're assisting and connecting the families (to resources), our main goal is to keep our kids connected to their home school, their school of origin."
Grier said because parents often feel incredible shame for experiencing homelessness, there are far more than 1,400 students in need of services.
"There's so much stigma, fear and embarrassment around being unhoused and homeless," Grier said. "So, families are often not coming forward."
She added that homelessness looks different for everyone.
"I think often the community at large thinks of homelessness as living in a tent, or car or box in the street," Grier said. "But for school-aged children, it's different. They could be in a hotel or motel. They could be doubled up with another friend or family, kind of what we call 'couch surfing,' because they can't afford their housing or they've had other hardships."
While schools can help provide an uninterrupted education for homeless children, solving homelessness requires an entire community.
"It's going to take a village," Drake said. "Our main goal is to educate and to make sure that we wrap around our students during school hours, as well as some after-school and summer school programming.
"But we cannot do it alone. We need the continued help."
Number of Hamilton County Schools students experiencing homelessness, by school year
— 2017-18: 533.
— 2018-19: 1,465.
— 2019-20- 1,462.
— 2020-21: 1,277.
— 2021-22: 1,621.
Source: Hamilton County Schools