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Child homelessness on the rise locally
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More than 45,000 children in Georgia were homeless at some point during 2010, several hundred of whom were in Newton County, according to national and local homeless advocates.

According to Census and Newton County Schools data, poverty and homelessness in Newton County, particularly among children, has spiked since the beginning of the recession in late 2007.

Pastor Clara Lett, who operates the Rainbow Community Center and the Garden of Gethsemane Homeless Shelter in Covington, said her organization saw 237 homeless children between Jan. 1 and Dec. 31, 2011.

"Last month we had 27 children during the holidays," Lett said. "We average monthly, I'd say, 30 to 40 children."

Lett said her program will allow people to stay at the shelter for 30 days and then help them find transitional housing nearby. The children of families who seek help at the shelter can continue to go to the schools they had been attending, she said.

The number of homeless in general has increased since the beginning of the recession in 2007, she said.

National homelessness rises
The National Center on Family Homelessness released a report Dec. 13 that estimated homelessness nationwide and ranked each state according to the amount of homelessness and the actions the state is taking to alleviate it.

According to the report, titled America's Youngest Outcasts 2010, about 1.6 million children were homeless in the United States in 2010, a 38-percent increase since 2007. Homelessness among both individuals and families spiked to 1.7 million in 2005 because of Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Rita, but then declined to 1.2 million by 2007.

The study ranked Georgia 41st in the nation on child homelessness and state efforts to combat it, using assessments on the extent of child homelessness, child well-being, risks for child homelessness and state policy and planning efforts. That is an improvement over the 2006 National Center on Family Homelessness study, in which Georgia was ranked 49th in the nation.

"Persistent homelessness leads to poor health, unemployment and adverse educational outcomes that carry large economic and social costs," the report's authors, led by Dr. Ellen L. Bassuk, president of the National Center on Family Homelessness, said in the report's conclusion. "Housing is essential to the solution, but it must be combined with critical services that support each family member and the family as a unit."

The report relied on information collected by the federal Department of Education using definitions created in the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. According to the law, a child is considered homeless if he is living in an emergency or transitional shelter; living in motels, hotels, trailers or camping grounds due to a lack of alternative housing; living in cars, parks, public spaces, abandoned buildings, substandard housing, bus or train stations; using a primary nighttime residence that is a public or private place not designed for or ordinarily used as regular sleeping accommodations for human beings; sharing the housing of other persons due to loss of housing, economic hardship, or a similar reason (sometimes called doubling-up); or awaiting foster care placement.

Child poverty jumps locally after recession
According to Census data, poverty in Newton County jumped from 10.4 percent in 2000 to 15.1 percent in 2010. The poverty level here increased until about 2004, when it hovered between 11.2 percent and 11.8 percent for several years. Then in 2008, it began to rise sharply.

The proportion of the under-18 population in Newton County considered impoverished followed the same trend. In 2000, 15.5 percent of children in the county were considered in poverty, according to the Census. The proportion increased to 17.2 percent in 2003 and stayed about at the same level for three years, and even fell to 16 percent in 2007. But the next year it jumped to 17.8 percent.

In 2010, child poverty in Newton County rose to 20.8 percent.

Data from the Newton County School System showed a similar spike. In 2001, 40.6 percent of the 11,734 students enrolled in the district qualified for free or reduced lunches. About 50 percent of the 17,084 students in 2006 qualified for free or reduced lunches.

That proportion roughly held steady until 2009, when the proportion jumped to 56 percent, then 60 percent in 2010 and 62.7 percent last year. This year, 65.67 percent of 19,168 students qualify for free or reduced lunches.

While the number of students who qualify for free and reduced lunches does not indicate poverty, it shows a greater number of families are earning lower income than in the past.

Schools offer reduced price or free lunches to children based on family income. Families qualify for free lunches if the total household income is 130 percent of the federal poverty line. For the 2011-12 school year, that means children in a household of three making up to $24,089 qualify for free lunches. A household qualifies for reduced price lunches if they make 185 percent of the federal poverty line.

The federal poverty line for a family of three is $18,530.

A school's or a school district's proportion of students qualifying for free and reduced lunches affects federal funding under several laws, with the schools having a greater proportion receiving additional money.

According to the federal Department of Education, a school with more than 35 percent of students qualifying for free or reduced lunches is eligible for additional money called Title I funding under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965.

Of Newton County's 23 schools, 19 are designated Title I schools this year, according to the school system. Nationally, 65 percent of the nation's schools qualify for Title I funding, according to the Department of Education.