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Elementary age children exit a Hamilton County school bus in front of the Family Housing and Learning Center last in the 700 block of East 11th Street.

Since the start of the Great Recession in 2008, the number of homeless students attending public schools in America has swelled.

Across the nation, their numbers have risen by 85 percent -- to a record 1.25 million -- in the 2012-13 school year, according to the U.S. Department of Education. In Tennessee and in Hamilton County, the increase is even bigger.

The number of homeless students in Tennessee is up 122 percent since before the recession to nearly 15,000, according to the Children's Defense Fund. And in Hamilton County the number of homeless students has more than doubled since 2008, said Marsha Drake, the county department of education's director of student services.

Homeless students are more likely to be diagnosed with learning disabilities, tend to have lower test scores and are far less likely to graduate from high school.

A 29-year-old Chattanooga woman's children are among what administrators expect will be more than 1,700 homeless students enrolled in Hamilton County public schools by year's end.

For a time, the single mom of five worked two jobs and got a child support check from the father of two of her children to support her family.

But the child support stopped after the father had a heart attack and became too sick to work. Then the woman lost one of her jobs when the two work schedules conflicted.

One part-time job didn't bring in enough money to pay living expenses. So this year, out of money and out of options, the mother started sleeping in her car while her children spent nights with a friend.

It took three weeks until the woman could get into a shelter. Now she and her kids are among five of nine families living at the Family Housing and Learning Center who have children enrolled in Hamilton County schools. Three of her kids attend public schools, while the two youngest go to early education programs.

The woman said she keeps her sights set on moving forward, but it's not easy.

Two weeks into the new school year, her oldest child, an 11-year-old Orchard Knob Middle School student, was put in detention for having the color red on her black shoes. She had the appropriate shirt and pants, but couldn't get the shoes needed for the school uniform.

"It can be rough,' said the mother, who asked not to be identified.

Support for stability

School administrators anticipate that the number of local homeless children enrolled in the county's public schools will top 1,700 this year, up from 1,693 in 2012-2013 and from 1,617 in 2011-2012.

Drake said the number of homeless Hamilton County students has increased by 100 to 150 percent since 2008.

She attributed some of that increase to the school district keeping better track of homeless students. She also said more are willing to come forward now, since there's less stigma than in the past and because the district offers services students can use.

"Since 2009, we've had a homeless liaison," Drake said.

The district provides school supplies, some technology support such as calculators, and uniforms to homeless students, she said. The district also arranges transportation, for example, from a homeless shelter downtown to a school in Ooltewah.

"We provide transportation back to the school or origin, because we went to provide some stability in their life," Drake said.

The district didn't get a $100,000 federal grant officials had hoped for through the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, she said, so it will have to scale back its homeless outreach when existing federal funding runs out at the end of November.

Number could be higher

The number of local homeless children could be even higher, but some parents who live doubled up with other families or in hotels do not consider themselves homeless, Drake said.

Nor does the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development count those families homeless or provide services to them such as shelter, short-term housing and assistance with obtaining permanent housing.

Yet if a family lives doubled up with another family without their name added to the lease or if they live at an extended-stay hotel, they are still extremely vulnerable, said Mary Ellen Galloway, executive director of Family Promise of Greater Chattanooga. The umbrella organization is dedicated to ending family homelessness in the Chattanooga area. The group's overnight shelter program housed 45 school-age children in 2013.

"When families live some place, it is important to grasp that if your name is not on the lease, you could be gone at any time," she said.

Diane Nilan is among several national advocates for homeless children asking Congress to support the Homeless Children and Youth Act. The act calls for HUD's definition of homelessness to expand beyond people living in shelters and on the street to include people living doubled up with other families or in hotels, she said.

Nilan said families at hotels are there at the mercy of social services or churches that pay the bill, because how long can a family that was once homeless pay nearly $200 a week for housing?

She said those people need to be counted so that the homeless population can be adequately served. Then there may be more funding for shelters and services, she said.

Survival trumps homework

It's hard to focus on homework while facing threats to survival, Nilan said.

Students "have to divert mental attention to the fact that they don't know where they're going to stay night by night," said Nilan. "How distracting that can be."

Most homeless students don't graduate from high school, she said.

"It's a low number," she said, referring to national statistics. "I would ballpark it at 25 to 40 percent."

Meanwhile, the Chattanooga mother of five recognizes the larger educational struggle, but does what she can to deal with the day-to-day struggles, as well.

After her 11-year-old was placed in detention because she didn't have all-black shoes, the woman gave the child her shoes.

Meanwhile, the mom wore flip-flops.

The Family Housing and Learning Center since has provided each of her five children with new school-appropriate shoes.

Staff writer Tim Omarzu contributed to this story.

Contact staff writer Yolanda Putman at or 423-757-6431.