Last school year, Memphis City Schools identified 1,500 students with no place to call home. Although a federal grant provided funding to help homeless students academically, there wasn't any money to help those children with quality-of-life issues.
In December, the school system set up a homeless-student fund to help needy children purchase winter necessities such as hats and gloves. The fund also helps homeless students buy things such as school pictures and used prom dresses.
"Say a student makes it to the 12th grade and everybody is swapping school pictures, but since the child's parents aren't working, he can't afford to buy photographs. I can use this money to purchase the photos," said MCS homeless-student liaison Delores Flagg. "I can't get them the big packets, but I can help with a couple of pictures."
Flagg said the money also could be used to purchase and clean secondhand prom dresses for homeless seniors. And she'll be using some of the funds for her annual summer camp for needy students.
"We do a summer camp every year for kids from preschool to 12th grade," Flagg said. "This year, we're going to focus on the performing arts so kids can come in and do dance, step, or poetry.
"These kids don't have an opportunity to voice what they're experiencing, so I hope the camp will help provide some relief," Flagg said. "Maybe it'll be a little easier to go back to the conditions of wherever they're staying if they have a chance to express what's going on inside."
Flagg said most of her students are only temporarily homeless, but there a few chronically homeless kids each year.
"One of the things we've noticed this year, more so than in other years, is that we've got more kids whose families are affected by foreclosures," Flagg said. "Their families are getting kicked out of their own homes or the properties they were renting."
At one time, those children would have been forced to switch schools if they eventually found homes in another part of town. But the McKinney-Vinto Act, part of No Child Left Behind, allows students to remain in the school they were enrolled in when they became homeless. The act also mandates that schools provide transportation and no-cost lunches to homeless students, even if they don't have the proper paperwork.
Regardless of that law, Flagg said homeless kids still have more problems than other children. Homeless students are more likely to get sick during the school year and more likely to have mental health problems.
As homeless liaison, Flagg helps parents enroll their kids without medical records, and she ensures those children have uniforms and supplies. Money for those items comes from both federal grant funds as well as MCS' new homeless-student fund.
"People can donate at any area Teachers' Credit Union. Just tell them it's for homeless students and youth. The more, the merrier," Flagg said. "We'll also take donations of gently worn school uniforms."
Despite various media reports, MCS is not creating a school specifically for homeless students.