As the number of homeless students in Greenville County soars, a new program is helping families find more stable housing

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Torrey Hill and her two teenage sons recently moved into an affordable rental house owned by Homes of Hope after living in transitional housing. Will Crooks/Greenville Journal

A local group is working to address a problem many people might not know exists — homelessness among students.

Last year, nearly 1,089 students in Greenville County Schools had no place to call home. Nine of them lived in places not meant for human habitation such as cars, parks, or abandoned buildings. Ninety lived in emergency shelters for the homeless.

Eight hundred twenty-two lived with friends or relatives because their families couldn’t afford a place of their own, and 168 stayed in hotels or motels, a number that has doubled since 2012.

The number of students categorized as homeless in the school district has increased 113 percent since 2012, and they attend 84 different schools.

Under the federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, homeless students are defined as students who lack a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence.

Some partners in the Greenville Homeless Alliance are working on a pilot program that will target 10 families of students who are living in motels and have an eviction on their record, something that often stops them from getting into stable housing, said Susan McLarty, Greenville Homeless Alliance coordinator. The Second Chance program includes the Greenville Housing Authority, United Housing Connection, SHARE (Sunbelt Human Advancement Resources), the Greenville County Human Relations Commission, and United Ministries.

Families identified by the school district’s coordinator for the McKinney-Vento Education Program, named for the federal law that defines which students are classified as homeless and mandates that public schools accommodate them, will go through an education program that teaches them how to be good tenants. They’ll get a certification, something organizers of the program hope will convince landlords to give them a second chance.

“These are people who are paying $225 to $450 a week for a motel room,” said Davina Kavanaugh, a mental health counselor and volunteer with the Greenville Homeless Alliance.

Many got there because of life circumstances, she said.

“It’s not people who are just lazy or drug addicts or the stereotypical homeless person,” Kavanaugh said. “It’s people who don’t know how to budget, go through a divorce, have a health issue, are escaping domestic violence, or are living paycheck to paycheck and have an unexpected expense such as a car breaking down.”

Never expected to be homeless

Torey Hill never expected to be homeless. She had a college degree and a full-time job.

Then her husband left after they separated last April. It took three months for her to fall behind on the rent on the apartment in which she and her three children lived. They were evicted. She was able to get another apartment, but within two months, the landlord started the eviction process again.

“When the second eviction was going on, my oldest son was really angry and frustrated. He wondered how it could happen to us when I worked. He thought nobody cared about our situation and wondered how we were going to get out of it,” Hill said. “Frankly, I was asking the same questions.”

Hill sought help from United Ministries in October, and she and her two teenage sons spent two weeks staying in churches in the county before getting a place in a transitional home, and an assigned social worker and financial adviser. Her oldest daughter had moved out of state.

In June, she and her sons moved into an affordable rental house owned by Homes of Hope.

“The most frustrating part of the whole thing was that it happened in the first place,” Hill said. “But now, we’re in a good situation. Everybody is calmer. Everybody is at peace. I can tell they [her sons] feel more stable. Even when we were in transitional housing, there was always the wonder in the back of their minds when are they going to tell us we can’t live here anymore.”

Katie Preuss knows of a single mother and her three daughters who “lived” in a 24-hour McDonald’s. Preuss, associate director of the Interfaith Hospitality Network at United Ministries, the church program Hill and her sons utilized, said the woman now has a full-time job, child care, and her own apartment.

Widespread problem

Nationwide, 1.3 million students experienced homelessness during the 2015-2016 school year, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Larger numbers of homeless students were enrolled in early elementary grades than in later grades.

In South Carolina, the numbers increased steadily from 2012-2013 to 2015-2016. But the number decreased in 2017, falling from 14,360 in 2016 to 12,018, or 1.9 percent of enrolled students.

Homeless students in South Carolina School year Number
2013 11,436
2014 12,809
2015 13,353
2016 14,360
2017 12,018
(Source: South Carolina Department of Education)

 

Matt Orr, public information officer with the South Carolina Department of Education, said those numbers are lower than what is predicted by the level of poverty in the state. He said the rule of thumb is that 10 percent of people living in poverty will experience homelessness at some point during the year. According to U.S. Census data, 18.5 percent of South Carolina residents under 18 years old live in poverty.

In Greenville County, homeless students attend school all over the county, including schools in some of its wealthiest areas such as Bell’s Crossing Elementary, Oakview Elementary, and Riverside High. That shows the importance of increasing available affordable housing in both the city and the county, McLarty said.

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