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Families in Transition: Giving Homeless students a fighting chance
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Ray Wilson, left, and Ruthie Wilson, right, of Premier Crematory decided to pay for Herman's prom expenses after hearing about the Woods family's situation in the March 27 article in the News. - photo by Michelle Kim

This is Part 2 of a multi-part series looking at homeless families in Rockdale and the community's response. Next week: Churches, non-profit agencies and the community comes together to create a "safety net" for families.

Part 1
Families in Transition: The Face of Homelessness

This is Part 2 of a multi-part series looking at homeless families in Rockdale and the community's response.

For the Woods family, one constant in their lives over the years as they’ve bounced from place to place and school system to school system, has been their mother’s emphasis on education.

Angela Woods, the glue and matriarch to her brood of three teenagers, suffers from sickle cell anemia, a genetic disease where the blood cells are shaped differently, tend to clump and carry less oxygen to the body. Throughout her life she has had to be hospitalized repeatedly and tires easily. The disease and its complications also often prevents her from holding a 9-5 job, although she admits she doesn’t know how she would afford her medical bills if she were not on Medicaid. Not being able to work as much as she would like has meant moving with relatives, living in questionable apartment situations and moving whenever the family gets behind on bills after medical complications.

But the past couple years have been particularly tumultuous, with the deaths of Angela’s father and sister and having to move from place to place in DeKalb, Fulton and finally Rockdale counties.

Since the beginning of the school year, they’ve been living in a clean but cramped motel room about 500 square feet, piled high with bags and stacks of all their worldly belongings. With four bodies inside, the term "elbow room" quickly takes on renewed meaning.

But though it might look tiny, Angela knows the motel room is preferable to being in limbo again.

"This is a crowed situation, but this is as stable as anything," said the exhausted but upbeat mother. "We’ve got a full refrigerator. We can cook with a microwave. We’ve got an internet connection. We’ve got everything that we need here. I didn’t want to be anxious and jump and get an apartment and that be the wrong move — not knowing how I’m going to get my kids to school."

For now, her kids are settled in schools in the Rockdale County Public School system, and Woods said the support offered by RCPS has been above what they’ve experienced in other school systems, such as help with getting immunizations and transportation to the registrar, bus transportation from their motel and allowing enrollment despite lacking certain documents.

RCPS reported having more than 100 students that classified as homeless, as of fall 2009. And officials say the count is probably an underestimate, since many families are reluctant to identify themselves as homeless, or might not think of themselves as homeless, since they have roof over their heads.

What many families in transition don’t realize is that there are services and resources available to help give their children a stable school environment, said Laura Barnes, the system’s homeless liaison

Under the federal McKinney-Vento Act, first passed in 1986 but reauthorized and tightened up in the 1990s, gives certain rights to students who are considered homeless, which includes those living in a motel, trailer park, campground, with relatives or friends, in foster care, or in shelters. Those rights include being able to stay with the school they were attending before they became homeless, even though they may be living outside of the district, receiving transportation to the school of origin, receiving a free lunch, and not being denied enrollment because of a lack of documents.

"The main goal of the law is to make sure education is stable for children," explained April Fallon, director of community support for the Rockdale County Public School system.

"The continuity of school is sometimes all that children have," added Barnes.

The school system received a grant last summer of about $124,000 over two years – about $84,000 of that from stimulus funds that are going to hire a case manager — to help provide extra resources and services for families in transition.

And just in time. Barnes and Fallon say the cases they’re seeing are often of families that are in limbo and fallen behind on bills, either because one or both parents lost their job.

"They’re trying so hard to hold on," said Barnes. "They may pay this bill this month, that bill that month. But eventually, one of them is going to catch up with them."

They also see older children who have lost their homes because they’ve been kicked out or are fleeing abusive situations and are still going to school.

The families and students that do become "homeless" also stay in that situation for longer than Barnes and Fallon used to see.

Facing these challenges at home and staying focused enough to finish their education can be difficult for students.

For a time in his sophomore year, Angela Woods’ oldest son, Herman, 18, considered dropping out of school altogether.

"‘If I can work, I can help my mom," Woods recalled. "I told him, I don’t care what I’m going through. You’re my son; I’m supposed to take care of you. I don’t need you to take care of me. I appreciate the gesture. Education is more important. That’s how you can take care of me. By taking care of yourself."

She struck a bargain with him; he would stay in school while they researched the options.

"By the time all that went on, he didn’t want to drop out anymore. I was so thankful when that year was up. He went back to junior year with a whole different mindset," she said.

Barnes agreed, describing how Herman, at the beginning of this school year, with no car and no public transportation in Conyers, trekked across the city twice in an attempt to enroll himself and his younger brother and sister.

Like any proud mother, she beams as she brags about her children’s achievements and their enrollment in honors and gifted classes. She describes her 15-year-old son Caleb's drawing abilities and how her youngest, Courtney, 14, was the top reader in her school.

"When I was growing up, I actually went through the same thing. My mom had seven children. I remember going to three different schools in the seventh grade. I had an illness that slowed me down. I got a GED, but if I had a more stable environment, but I probably still could have graduated." She is now taking college courses for business marketing, and hopes that the cycle will end with her children.

"If I don’t break it with me, I’m going to break it with my children. They’re going to put themselves in a position where they’re going to be able to have a stable home environment, just through their education."


Next week: Churches, non-profit agencies and the community comes together to create a "safety net" for families.