MACON, Ga. — The Bibb County School District says they have nearly 700 students who are considered homeless. However, school officials say that's just the number they've documented, and the actual number of homeless students is likely higher.
The district hands out a questionnaire to families who may qualify. In it, they ask the student or family if they're sharing a house with another person because of an economic hardship or a similar reason, if they're living in motels, hotels, trailer parks, or transitional shelters, have a nighttime residence that's a public space, or are living alone without a parent or guardian.
For 9-year-old Kaylie Searcy and her family, their situation left them living with other people. Their family was one of dozens told to evacuate Crystal Lake Apartments. Residents living at the apartment complex have been plagued with water and power issues after the owner failed to pay bills, as well as deteriorating conditions.
At the end of last month, the tenants who weren’t evicted because of the problems were given a letter by the new management company, saying it wouldn't be possible or safe to make the extensive repairs. They gave residents until April 30 to move out.
"She's been here, her grandmother's, her other grandmother's, uncles', cousins', aunts'... she's been everywhere," Tia Goolsby, Kaylie’s mother, said.
Goolsby worked for weeks to try to find another place for her family to call home, but it wasn’t easy.
"I do owe an apartment complex," Goolsby said. "When I moved here and got the rent situated, I did make payment arrangements to pay off that."
Goolsby moved her family to Crystal Lake because the apartment complex offered a 'second chance' program for people who had previously been evicted. She says under the program, she was finally able to pay her debt, keep up with her current bills, work a full-time job, and be a mother to two children. However, she says the sudden eviction from Crystal Lake put her back in a bad position, and this time it wasn’t her doing.
"It's hurting financials, stress wise, everything," Goolsby said. "That's why I say my mind is blown, because I was getting there. I was taking my necessary steps, and now, I have to deal with something that I didn't even cause."
Meanwhile, she says her family was spread around Macon, staying at various family members' homes, which impacted her daughter.
"I really couldn't go to school because my grandmother has to go to work, my grandfather, he can't drive, and nobody could take me," Searcy said.
The Bibb County School District says they’ve been able to track 683 homeless students for the 2018-2019 school year. Just three years ago, that number was 570 students.
"The students are from all walks of life, the parents as well," said Danielle Jones, the Bibb County Schools' Homeless and Foster Care Liaison. "I think a big misconception of homelessness is a misappropriation of money, a lot of times it's just one incident, like the Crystal Lake incident."
Jones said the district gets Title I funding and nearly $60,000 in federal funds from a program called McKinney-Vento, which helps provide students with academic needs.
"The school that the student was attending prior to becoming homeless, so we provide transportation to and from their school of origin, or they can attend their zoned school," Jones said. "The bus comes to their home, even if they're in a hotel, motel, or shelter, or even transitional housing, picks the students up, takes them to their schools, and then back in the afternoons."
However, transportation isn’t the only service they offer. She said they also provide qualifying students with school supplies, book bags, and uniforms, and she said they also 'pay for summer camp during the summer, four weeks of summer enrichment camp, cap and gown fees, any academic fees that are associated with school as well as extracurricular fees to make sure those students have full participation.'
Jones said the goal is to make sure every student in the district is ready for college or a career, so they work to remove any academic barriers. What Bibb County Schools can’t give students, they partner with various organizations in the community, like the Mentor’s Project of Bibb County.
"Sometimes if you're worried about where you're going to lay your head at night, you can't go to school and focus," June O’Neal, the Mentor’s Project Executive Director, said.
Jones said a lot of parents either don't know about the service or don't sign up, because of the stigma surrounding homelessness. However, posters for McKinney-Vento are hung at all the schools in the district, and each school has a person dedicated to registering qualifying students for the program.
Goolsby didn’t know about the program and was concerned about having to switch Kaylie’s school.
"A 9-year-old shouldn't have to think about this," Kaylie said.
But now, Kaylie can focus on things 9-year-olds enjoy like her dolls, unicorns, and of course continuing to make good grades. After weeks of searching, her mother finally found a permanent place for them to live.
The Mentor’s Project says there is a big need for food as summer break draws near. Their organization is working to help feed students who may depend on the meals they get at school during the school year. The non-profit is asking for peanut butter and jelly, cereal, milk, Pop-Tarts, spaghetti sauce, and noodles.
To drop off food, call 478-765-8624.