Politics & Government

Stimulus money helps homeless schoolchildren

ROCKY MOUNT, N.C. — Downtown Rocky Mount in eastern North Carolina offers a horizon of shuttered businesses, along with a stretch of houses with boarded-up windows and vacant porches.

Forbes magazine now ranks Rocky Mount, once a vibrant manufacturing hub, as one of the 10 most impoverished cities in America, with an unemployment rate hovering at a dismal 13 percent and a county crime rate that's almost double the national average.

The area's woes have contributed to another number that's rising: homelessness among children.

The Nash-Rocky Mount Public Schools system had at least 564 homeless students for the 2009-10 school year, up 9 percent from last year. North Carolina ranks as the ninth worst state in the country for the risk of child homelessness, with a 48 percent increase in homeless youth from 2006.

About $70 million from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, also known as the stimulus bill, is to bolster a federal program aimed at helping homeless children. The money will assist cash-strapped school districts in complying with the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, a federal mandate to help remove some of the obstacles that prevent homeless students from attending school.

North Carolina received $1,627,010 in stimulus money under the McKinney-Vento act. Nash County, which includes Rocky Mount, got $44,248.

The Nash-Rocky Mount Public Schools hired Joyce Hunt, a case manager, last November with most of its stimulus money. Her job is to connect the district's homeless youth with social and academic services.

"The school will contact me with a specific concern and I can follow up directly," Hunt said. "I just . . . say, 'Hello, I'm just checking in. Do you need anything: pencils, help with homework?' "

Carol Eatman oversees the school district's homeless education program. Before Hunt's position was created, Eatman said, the district struggled to address the needs of homeless students.

"When you have social workers who have up to four schools and service all the children, you're very limited in the amount of focus you can put just on this growing population," Eatman said.

District officials are trying to find a way to sustain Hunt's position once the stimulus money is gone. Eatman hopes that McKinney-Vento funds will fill the gap.

"It's an uphill battle making sure we have the funds for next year," said Barbara Duffield, the policy director of the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth.

Diane Nilan, the founder and president of the homeless youth advocacy group HEAR US, charged that the federal government is "almost clueless" and has largely ignored America's estimated 1.5 million homeless children in dealing with the recession.

"When you look at what you're getting and what the need is, it's pathetic," Nilan said.

For now, though, in Rocky Mount, Hunt is the embodiment of stimulus spending on homeless youth. She uses her position to invest in the dreams of homeless youth.

Rosella Campbell, 14, is one of the students Hunt monitors. She and her father, Rodney, live at the Bassett Center, a community shelter in Rocky Mount.

"I wouldn't want her to grow up with the lack of education I have," her father said, clinging to his daughter's certificates and awards. "I want her to be the smartest person in the world."

Rosella, holding up a "Battle of the Books" trophy she won in a regional competition, said later that she'd try.

"I know I can have a chance," she said, peering out the windows of her school bus to a diorama of foreclosed dreams.

"I'm going to try to really grab it with all my might and not let it go. I'm going to try to be the best me I can be."

(Bohn and Oduah are June graduates of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism.)


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