Homeless children may live in a tent or a camper, sleep on a different couch every night, sleep in a car or even sleep in a ditch. They have no permanent, safe, predictable place to call home, according to Karen Young, Wilson County Schools Student Training Enrichment and Progress (STEP) liaison.
And in the Wilson County school system, at least 330 children fit that definition. Young
and Youth Links Director Lisa Baldwin agree that there are probably at least twice that many who could be counted. STEP and Youth Links work together to help these children stay in school and graduate.
"Graduation is the goal," Young said, adding that 80 percent of Tennessee's jail and prison inmates do not have a high school diploma.
Having a diploma increases the chances for these students to get and keep jobs that pay enough to break the cycle of poverty, which is often responsible for homelessness, Young pointed out.
Help is the law
A federal law passed in the 1980s made it easier for these children to be enrolled in school and to remain in the same school if possible. The McKinney-Vento Act (also called Title X) not only defines homelessness, it sets requirements for what schools must do to serve the children.
One of the changes the act made, according to Youth Links counselor Debra Hill, is that a school can no longer require complete records before enrolling a child.
"Used to be, you had to have records," she said. "Now kids can be enrolled and eat free until we can obtain their records."
"And under the title, we can pay for birth certificates and help locate the records for the family," Young added. "It means there are no barriers to enrollment."
For most of these children, it also means having breakfast and a hot lunch, as well as other help they may need.
"Some kids come in with just the clothes on their backs," Young said. "We have churches that help."
The local churches also provide food to the schools for a backpack program that sends a backpack of food home each weekend with any children whom the school determines may not be getting enough to eat.
Some kids qualify for help from Youth Links or the STEP program because they don't live with their parents or legal guardians, Hill said.
"I like to say they live differently," she said. "I lived differently my last year of high school. My parents left me with another family. I didn't know them very well at first, but I got to know them."
She and the other counselors at Youth Links want to be sure that school-age youth in Wilson County know that they will help. If you are a child or know a child who may qualify for Youth Links, just call 453-3833 and tell them about the situation.
Title X's definition of homelessness is also used for older youth and adults who seek help because they have no "permanent, safe, predictable" home.
Wilson County has a limited number of places where someone without a home can turn for help. One of them, from Dec. 1 through March 15 each year, is Compassionate Hands.
This is a group of 14 Wilson County churches which are providing supper, a warm place to sleep and breakfast for up to 12 men and 12 women seven nights a week, according to John Grant, who coordinates the program.
Death was catalyst for action
"We want to be sure nobody freezes to death in Wilson County," Grant said, citing a recent case when a homeless man froze to death on the steps of a church in Madison County, Tennessee.
Each evening from 4-7 p.m., those who need a place to stay overnight should go to Cross Style Church on Trinity Lane.
Volunteers there will help them to register and provide them with a hot meal at 5 p.m.
Actually, Cross Style Church serves supper every night at 5 p.m. to those in need, year-round.
But during the winter months, people from Compassionate Hands actually run vans and pick people up who need shelter each night, and bring them to supper. Then the vans take the women to one church and the men to another church, where they can sleep.
In the morning, the host churches provide breakfast for the guests and take them to a drop-off site of their choosing within five miles of the church. The contact phone number for Compassionate Hands is 522-1538.
Brooks House provides shelter for homeless women and their children year-round.
However, the house currently has a waiting list.
It's in the process of adding a new section to its shelter which will provide three more bedrooms, as well as a dining room, kitchen and additional bathrooms.
More families to be served
"When that section is complete, we will have ten single-women rooms and five family rooms," Melanie Johnson, an administrative assistant at Brooks House, said.
Brooks House does have some restrictions, she also explained. "We can't take boys 13
or over," she said. "We also have a 9 p.m. curfew unless the woman is working. And we have a zero tolerance policy for drugs or alcohol."
The contact phone number for Brooks House is 444-8882.
Some of the children who are served by Youth Links are also served by Brooks House, and some of the older youth benefit from My Next Step Resource Center.
The center provides a variety of services to help find jobs for people who are marginally employable, according to volunteer worker Madeline Adams.
Some of the people they help are also homeless or living with others. The center offers job seeker training, the use of computers and a telephone for job hunting, resume preparation, job referrals, and classes in life skills, cooking, and budgeting.
They also have a "Dress for the Next Step" program that provides professional clothes to improve the person's chances of being hired, Adams added.
Bikes, cars help homeless
Next Step also has a Bikes to Work program which provides a bike to ride to work for any of its trainees who have found a job which is close enough to allow a bike to serve as transportation.
You can call Next Step at 547-9999, or go to their office at 216-B Leeville Pike.
The Glades Church has a program in which church men repair and resell cars for work.
But like the Brooks House, the program has a waiting list.
The automotive ministry of the Glades Church takes donated cars and rehabs them. They then sell the cars for very affordable prices to people who need transportation, but can't afford it.
The money they charge for the cars is used to pay for oil, tires and other needed parts to make the donated cars safe and reliable.
The Glades Church phone number is 444-9550.
Worst part is 'not knowing'
The Community Help Center on West High Street also assists some homeless families and individuals.
"We've helped about 10 or 12 families I'm sure were homeless in the last month," said Jennifer Trammel, operations manager for the center.
"The worst part of my job is when families come in and then leave, and I don't know if they will have enough food tonight or even a place to lay their heads," she added.
The center does what it can to provide food and clothes for people, and refers them to other agencies which may also be able to help, Trammel said. The Help Center also passes along blankets and beds to other agencies which do offer shelter.
The phone number for the Help Center is 449-1856.
Best part is 'helping together'
In fact, passing resources on and referring people to places where they may be able to get more help is the common factor among all the agencies in Wilson County.
Each one knows about what the others can do and is aware of how they can help each other. Cross Style Church Minister Sean Patrick may have said it best: "It's a real community effort. Everyone seems to be coming together."
Anyone who may want to volunteer or donate money or goods to any of these programs is encouraged to call and find out what is needed.
The streets are cold. Wilson County hearts are not.
Writer Connie Esh may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.