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MSCS specialists working to find families in need amid major rise in students facing homelessness

First quarter numbers for the 2022-2023 school year identified 1,504 students experiencing homelessness.

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — The number of Memphis-Shelby County Schools students and families experiencing homelessness increased drastically in 2022, already surpassing the total for the previous entire school year. 

And school district officials know there are plenty of others who have not come forward, understandably concerned over sharing how vulnerable their situation might be.

“There is just something about watching another adult sit in front of you and shed tears and say, ‘I'm at my wit's end. I don't know what else to do,’” said Taylor Payne, one of the new MSCS specialists tasked with finding at-risk families and getting them the help they need.

The MSCS Office of Student Enrollment, Equity and Discipline is using nearly $3 million in federal stimulus funds through the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) to find as many families facing housing insecurity as possible. 

“In many cases, families are having to move around again, so it's not easy for the school staff to keep track,” said Dr. Angela Hargrave, the Executive Director for the office.

The district identified a total of 1,264 students facing homelessness for the 2021- 2022 school year, including 538 during its first quarter. First quarter numbers for the 2022-2023 school year identified 1,504 students experiencing homelessness.

“Some parents have lost their jobs, especially due to COVID,” Payne said. “A lot of them sometimes experienced eviction and we've noticed an increase in rent and housing prices.” 

As of November 14, MSCS increased the number to 1,680. Dr. Karen Ball-Johnson, Senior Manager of Special Populations, says they found 40 more students as of Thanksgiving.  

“Our families aren't sleeping on park benches, they're not sleeping under bridges, they're just not there,” she said.

Payne and her fellow specialists are each responsible for 18 to 20 schools, working with the staff to connect with families, meet with them to learn about their situation and show them how to get any possible assistance available.

“(In about six months) I have serviced almost 100 students. (We may) have to meet a parent somewhere to give them uniform vouchers (or) school supplies,” Payne said. 

All information regarding a family’s housing situation is kept confidential. Payne says the most important part is gaining parents’ trust. 

“One parent (I met with), she was doing everything in her power to be able to provide for her children,” Payne said. “She was having her own health issues and...she broke down (crying) because that was a big barrier.”

In the midst of their first year serving families, Payne says they work to keep in constant contact with as many families as possible. 

Dr. Ball-Johnson says that while the need for even more specialists is significant, MSCS does not currently have the budget to do so. 

“We may not be able to get to all of our schools in a week, maybe even a month's time,” she said. “However, (with) periodic school visits, we build relationships with the office staff, maybe even some of the teachers.”

The type of help they lead families to includes providing meals and transportation, which MSCS offers directly, as well as connecting families with a network of community organizations that provide temporary housing or help paying utilities.

But with ARPA funding set to end in June of 2024, Dr. Ball-Johnson says the district will need resources from either the federal government, the Tennessee Department of Education (which is aware of the homelessness situation) or even local community members. 

Dr. Hargrave says they want families to know that while a situation may seem hopeless, there is a light at the end of the tunnel. 

“I've had parents who reached back out and they'll send me pictures when they've gotten a house or send me a picture of their child's honor roll certificate.”

Families seeking assistance can contact Dr. Ball-Johnson at ballkf@scsk12.org or 901-416-7393.

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