Trikella Nelson doesn't like labeling students as homeless.
She prefers to describe their lack of housing as a temporary situation they can overcome.
"Just because your situation is what it is right now, it doesn't have to negate you being a doctor, a lawyer, you being successful," said Nelson, the homeless liaison for the Muscogee County School District. "This is just a period of time. This is not who you are. There's a big difference."
Nelson is responsible for 954 students who are currently experiencing homelessness. She is also director of guidance services in the school district's social work department. As the homeless liaison, she has an outreach specialist and case worker on staff to help serve homeless students.
Nelson has been in the position for about one year. Prior to that, she was guidance director at Columbus High School.
These days, she and her staff prefer to call their program the McKinney-Vento department, named after the federal law that ensures homelessness doesn't cause those children to be left behind in school. The
McKinney-Vento Homeless Education Assistance Act offers immediate enrollment and educational stability for homeless children and provides federal grants to states that abide by the terms of the legislation.
This year, the Muscogee County School District was awarded more than $80,000 to serve homeless students, Nelson said. The district also receives donations from the community.
Under the McKinney-Vento Act, being homeless doesn't necessarily mean living on the street or in a shelter or hotel. It also includes families doubling-up with other families, which is the case for about 89 percent of the students experiencing homelessness in the school district, Nelson said.
But the doubling-up has to be the result of economic hardship in order for the student to receive services.
The homeless numbers also include a category called "unaccompanied youth," which is any student living with someone who is not their biological mother or father. The category includes those living with grandparents, Nelson explained.
"When you think of the term homelessness, you automatically go to the Hollywood image," she said. "We have a different definition than what the general public would think is homelessness. And within our definition, it's any individual that's in a living environment that's not a fixed, regular or adequate nighttime residence.
"Unfortunately, we can't pay for housing, can't pay for utilities and things of that nature," Nelson added. "But we do whatever we can to connect them with the appropriate resources. Our goal is to make sure that children experiencing homelessness are educated on the same playing field."
To accomplish that goal, Nelson and her staff try to eliminate any barriers students may face when it comes to academic development.
Under the McKinney-Vento Act, students who are transient can be enrolled immediately without providing documents such as a lease or utility bill when registering for school.
Busing and other services
Nelson and her staff also work closely with the district's transportation department to arrange bus pick-up from shelters and hotels.
"They're great about re-routing," Nelson said of the transportation department. "We also provide for those individuals that simply can't get a bus route. In those cases, we provide bus passes for students and parents."
The district also gives school supplies and toiletries to homeless students, as well as uniforms when necessary.
Once a year, the department organizes a Success and Beyond college fair for unaccompanied youths to meet with college admissions and military recruitment representatives. Some students have had application fees waived on the spot, Nelson said.
"Many of our students may not have the opportunity to go and visit a campus or attend a college fair that's here locally due to transportation," she added. "So we bring the college fair to them."
Nelson said she's also working with Columbus State University and other colleges to help them build their McKinney-Vento programs.
She said today's students live in a tech-savvy generation, which requires Internet research for many school assignments. The McKinney-Vento department has a small computer lab that students can use.
"If you don't know where you're sleeping at night, it's kind of hard to get that assignment completed," she said.
And there are other barriers.
"If they are in a sheltered environment, we know they're receiving dinner," Nelson said. "But if they're in a hotel or motel, that could be an issue just making sure they're having dinner at night. Just the basic necessities that we often take for granted, they have to worry about those things, along with the regular expectations of being a student."
Nelson said the district sends out a student residency sheet twice a year to gather basic demographic information. Families submit the information to the schools, which is then forwarded to the McKinney-Vento department.
The department also works with counselors, teachers and other district personnel to determine who needs homeless services, and the outreach specialist visits churches and other organizations to spread awareness.
"We do have a way to go, but we want people to know that we do exist," Nelson said. "The McKinney-Vento department is here to help."