How schools, community leaders are handling growing homelessness among Memphis students

A high school student walks down a dark hallway in a public high school, silhouetted by daylight spilling in and reflecting off of the floor and lockers.
The number of homeless children in Shelby County Schools had jumped by 36% from last fall, raising questions about how Tennessee’s largest school district and the community can best support students and families in need. (Hal Bergman Photography / Getty Images)

In the fall of 2015, Bartlett High School teacher Sheleah Harris noticed something abnormal. 

One of her students who was typically engaged and well-behaved suddenly started acting differently. He stopped doing his work and was disruptive in the classroom. Harris, who is now a Shelby County Schools board member, asked him what was wrong. 

She learned that he had recently become homeless.

Having seen firsthand the ways homelessness hurts students academically, socially and emotionally, Harris is alarmed by the growing number of Memphis children experiencing housing insecurity.

With 538 enrolled students identified as homeless as of Sept. 29, the number of homeless children in Shelby County Schools had jumped by 36% from last fall, raising questions about how Tennessee’s largest school district and the community can best support students and families in need.

The data presented to the Shelby County school board last month marks the first recorded increase in student homelessness in Memphis since the pandemic began. At the end of the first quarter last school year, the district reported 395 students were homeless — a sharp decrease from the year before that, when there were 643.

Homelessness data is often not 100% accurate, because of varying definitions of homelessness and the challenge in counting people who couch surf day to day. 

Still, the latest data is the most accurate picture of homelessness in the district since the pandemic began. During typical school years, the district relies on school counselors, social workers, and teachers to gather data on homeless students on a school-by-school basis. That wasn’t possible while school buildings were shut down and school staff could only interact with students and families through a computer screen.

Because the district relies on school counselors, social workers, and teachers to gather the data, the latest data is the most accurate picture of the situation since the pandemic began, now that students have returned to in-person learning and school staff have more direct access to students and families.

The spike is likely the result of a lack of affordable housing across Memphis, Karen Ball, the district’s senior advisor of attendance and discipline, said at an Oct. 17 school board meeting. With the national moratorium on evictions now expired, plus a competitive housing market, rental rates have skyrocketed in Memphis and across the nation.

Between September 2020 and September 2021, the nation’s median apartment rent rose by 15%. In the Memphis metropolitan area, the situation is even worse: The city has seen a 19% increase, according to a MLK50 report last month.

The district continues to do whatever it can to help address the problem, Ball said, from providing transportation, school supplies, and uniforms, to offering group and individual tutoring at both schools and shelters. The district also partners with community agencies to provide temporary housing and emergency payments for hotels.

But, Ball said, resources are quickly becoming exhausted, especially for families who have multiple evictions on their record or owe up to $10,000 in past-due rent or mortgage payments.

And the problem is only expected to get worse.

“We are anticipating more homeless families as the school year progresses,” Ball said.

Shelby County Schools’ recent data is unsettling but not surprising, said Mary Hamlett, vice president of family programs for Metropolitan Inter-Faith Association, a nonprofit that assists Memphis families experiencing or on the brink of homelessness. In July, MIFA received about 500 applications for emergency assistance to help families stay in their homes or pay for utilities. In September, she said, the number of applications quadrupled to 2,000. 

Hamlett assumes there are far more homeless families than current district data accounts for. Many families, she said, wait to enroll their children in school until they find permanent housing and are able to leave the homeless shelter or other temporary housing.

Meanwhile, many landlords who rented affordable housing and gave flexibility to renters with questionable credit history have left the business because of lost income and other challenges posed by the pandemic eviction moratorium. This causes a bottleneck in getting homeless families permanent housing again, Hamlett said.

The stigma attached to living in a homeless shelter, Hamlett said, can have severe ramifications for children’s social and emotional development and well-being. They may be ostracized from their peers and may live in a constant state of stress.

In turn, homeless children often fall behind academically — an even bigger concern after all the upheaval the pandemic has caused during the last three school years.

“They know that their future is very uncertain,” Hamlett said. “How can you focus on learning in that situation?”

And if those students can’t learn, Hamlett said, a vicious cycle begins. If a child doesn’t receive a quality education, they may not be able to land a good job as an adult. If they can’t earn enough money to afford stable housing, their children may also experience homelessness.

The only way to get children out of this cycle, Hamlett said, is to ensure everyone has “the basics” — food, shelter, clothing, and education — at the beginning of their lives. Schools do their part to support students facing housing insecurity, Hamlett said, and now it’s on public officials and community leaders to dig into the problem.

Harris echoed that sentiment, saying community leaders and members need to step up as homelessness rises in Memphis and beyond.

“The local school district can only do so much,” Harris said. “We have to have really strong community partners that are kind of locking arms with us to attack this issue.”

That’s what Harris resolved to do in 2015 after discovering her student had become homeless. She started by emptying one of her desk drawers and filling it with snacks, toiletries, and school supplies for him and any other student in need. In 2016, Harris founded Living Grace, a nonprofit that advocates for homeless children and provides resources to their families, and she’s continued that advocacy work as a school board member.

Board member Stephanie Love applauded the efforts the district has made to support homeless students. But, Love said, the district should be more intentional about how it partners with community organizations to find long-term solutions such as advocating for a living wage.

“I think everything that we’re doing is great, but it’s not sustainable for our parents,” Love said at a recent board meeting. “And if we want our students to come to school, we have to make sure they have a home.”

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