Curious Chatham: As Chatham considers options, hundreds of kids go without a home

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While visiting Northwood High School a few weeks back, a student asked Our Chatham about homeless students, which immediately drew our interest and attention. In a county of such wealth in pockets but despair in others, wasn’t there a shelter or some place these kids could call home? The county is working on options for children without such a basic need, but the quick answer is no – there isn’t, and hundreds of students are in this precarious spot of making do with little to nothing. Adrianne Cleven dug in to explain the matter further.

A 17-year-old student at Northwood High School – to protect her, we’ll call her Kate – returns from her days working and attending class to sleep at her friend’s home. The friend has provided her with a bedroom and a shower, but Kate says she would have been willing to crash on the couch.

She’s simply grateful to have a place to sleep.

Kate is the first Chatham County minor in 20 years to have been successfully emancipated, or legally separated, from her parents. She has considered herself homeless for the last several weeks and says her living situation has made her anxious.

“You have to be thinking of your next moves and have them solid,” she said. “Or you’re just going to be stuck somewhere, stranded, not able to get to wherever you’re staying that night. It’s kind of nerve-wracking, but you get used to it after a while.”

Kate isn’t the only Chatham County student who is facing housing insecurity. According to Chatham County School’s McKinney-Vento representative Rosemarie Rovito, officials identified 654 homeless students by the end of the 2017-2018 school year.

So far, 464 students have been identified as homeless this school year. Five of those children are designated as “unaccompanied,” and 99 of them are living in substandard housing.

Chatham County adults struggle with homelessness too, but homeless children are especially vulnerable because they may only find consistency and stability during the school day. In a county with both rural areas and pockets of extreme wealth, the problem could easily go unseen. Rovito works to support homeless students, help them find stability and consistency,and uphold federally mandated stipulations in the McKinney-Ventoact of 2001, which aims tokeep those children in school for as long as possible.

“Some kids show up with their stuff in their book bags because they don’t know where they’re staying that night,” she said. “So, if we keep them in school, we control some of the narrative. We can say, ‘Okay, where are you staying? Are you safe?’ And if they stay there for a long time, we’re always thankful.”

County policy analyst Stephanie Watkins-Cruz spoke about the county’s issues with housing instability at the “One Chatham” community forum May 15, citing a 2,000-unit housing gap countywide and “larger systemic issues” she says are at the root of economic inequality, as well as a lack of access to housing, jobs, healthcare and education.

Susan Levy, the former Orange County Habitat for Humanity director who also spoke at the One Chatham forum, also cited Chatham’s lack of affordable, single-bedroom homes for rent.

“I think we don’t have a lot of housing options at all for millennials; for single individuals or couples,” Levy said. “It’s a missing piece of the puzzle here in Chatham County because we have so many single-family homes and not very many duplexes, triplexes, quadruplexes, that kind of housing.”

Sally Scholle, a school social worker for Virginia Cross and Siler City Elementary schools, says that much of Chatham’s issue with poverty is concentrated on her side of the county. Almost 300 students under her care regularly receive bags of free groceries through local charities in partnership with her schools, and many of them receive free and reduced lunches.

There is discernible heartbreak in Scholle’s voice as she recounts, in her words, an “unbelievable” housing situation for some of her students. Overcrowded homes and substandard conditions are two of her main concerns.

“The rents that people pay for some of these places because of the lack of availability,” she says, “just are not worth what they’re getting at all. It’s so sad. And the heating bills, the electric bills, they’re so high. A lot of times the water bills are … four times what mine are. Because a lot of times there are leaks, and the landlords don’t like to fix things.

She says that several landlords in her area “own a tremendous amount of properties that are substandard and not considered fit for habitation.”

Kate, the homeless high school student from earlier, successfully represented herself in court during her three-month long attempt to become emancipated: a process that separates minors from the legal authority of parents or guardians. Part of her argument for emancipation, aside from parents she called “unsupportive,” were concerns about mold and flooding in the rooms of her parents’ home. 

Rovito says that unfit living conditions are not uncommon in the area.

“You know, we have a lot of trailers that were built in the 70’s,” Rovito said. “There’s no heating, there’s no air conditioning. There are windows broken and the roofs are falling off. It’s like living in a tin can.”

Watkins-Cruz, who personally experienced homelessness while in high school, says the consequences of housing instability are seriousness and include a “psychological sense of imbalance.”

“There’s something to be said about the effects of not having your own home,” she said. “It’s incredibly destabilizing. It destabilizes everything in your life. If you have unstable housing, it competes with everything. It messes with your health. it messes with your psychological ability to make healthy decisions and choices.”

But there’s hope on the horizon.

Though the Chatham does not currently have a homeless shelter, Chatham County was awarded $750,000 at the beginning of this year to build one through the Community Development Block Grant program administered by the state Department of Commerce. Watkins-Cruz and Chatham County Planning Director Jason Sullivan have a location in mind, but they are still planning the process and analyzing the grant to ensure compliance.

In the meantime, Chatham County began partnering with Central Piedmont Community Action near the end of 2018 to administer hotel and shelter stays for homeless residents.

Currently, CPCA can offer up to three weeks of paid lodging to those in need of emergency housing. Since last June, CPCA has served over 30 individuals or families with emergency stays. Natasha Elliott, executive director of CPCA, says that the block grant funding tends to run out quickly because of the high demand for emergency hotel stays.

According to Elliott, homelessness looks different in a rural county.

“Sometimes I think when you go to some bigger cities you see some more people on the street soliciting money, begging for money,” she said. “And when you come to Chatham, you don’t necessarily see that. But that doesn’t mean the problem doesn’t exist. You find that more people in the rural areas will sleep in the woods; they’ll sleep in tents. You may not see them, but they’re still there.”

Scholle says a few of the families she works with stay in three local hotels: AmeriVu, Days Inn, and the Siler City Motor Lodge. A representative for Siler City Motor Lodge said that a week’s stay for a family of four – two adults and two children – is priced at $400, but that in subsequent weeks the price could decrease.

Emergency situations can also arise for children, requiring quick action and generous hearts. Rovito said that students have relied on teachers for a place to stay, and a Chatham County board member even opened up their home at one point. To stave off some of those emergency situations, she suggested creating school-specific support teams of caring residents willing to temporarily host homeless students.

“I just feel like we depend on the community so much to help us in these times, because that’s all we have,” Rovito said. “So, if there was a better way of harnessing those things, that would be great.”

Meanwhile, Kate is planning to move to Virginia this summer. She is finishing up her junior year at Northwood, and she says she’s learning to be grateful: in her case, for a trustworthy set of friends who have supported her during the few weeks she has been homeless. In high school, Watkins-Cruz found resources through a similar network of support, but one that included her parents.

Her biggest piece of advice for students who find themselves without a home?

“Do not be ashamed. And do not be afraid to ask for help,” she said. “It can feel really weird and it can feel really isolating to go through this while everything else around you is still going on, as if nothing’s going wrong. So, I would just say that this is something that is surmountable, but that you shouldn’t have to go through it by yourself.”

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