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The Homeless Part II: Living in the shadows as economy rebounds

While the national economy booms and home values across Williamson County rebound, statistics show that the rising tide is not lifting all residents. Unemployment in the county is the lowest in the state, building permits are up and people far and wide continue to move here in droves for the high quality of life offered in county and city schools, housing and the visible beauty that surrounds it all. But that’s not the whole story. Men, women and children who are homeless, poverty-stricken and displaced exist in the shadow of abundance that dominates most county resident experiences.

Denise Goodwin, WCS homeless liaison and assistant superintendent of elementary schools, and four social workers from the district emerged as instrumental forces in raising awareness about the county issue, which led community organizations to partner in the formation of the Williamson County Homeless Coalition.

Due to a sharp increase in homeless students in WCS from 30 in 2010 to 140 in 2013, Goodwin felt like she had to do something.

“We have a moral obligation to give students the best educational opportunities possible and help seniors finish school.” Under the federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act of 1987, school districts are required to provide homeless students with such services as free and/or reduced lunch and school supplies. They are also immediately referred to one of the county’s four social workers to help link families with community services.

When a family or child is in need of emergency necessities, “GraceWorks is our first contact,” Goodwin said.

Some of the most vulnerable students are high school seniors, who, once they’ve turned 18, are no longer eligible for state support. Many are in danger of not graduating Goodwin said.

“We do everything we can to provide educational supports.

She also contributes the increase in school district homeless numbers in the past two years to under-identifying the population in the past. “We are getting better at identifying families and raising awareness in the district about this issue through training and education,” Goodwin said.

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Goodwin said that family circumstances are multi-faceted, including job loss, divorce, natural disasters such as the May 2010 flood and tornadoes, and abusive relationships. These situations could lead to teens staying with friends, family or living in hotels.

“There is only one shelter in Williamson County [Bridges, a facility for victims of domestic violence], so families are doubling up. Families are taking care of families,” she said.

After learning of the need in schools, GraceWorks created a position for Brian Myers, executive administrator and homeless liason, to help the displaced teenagers with necessities, housing and any support to help them be successful in school. He visits displaced teens at school in order to distribute information, offer assistance, a place to study and to lend an ear.

“Last year, I was called to Franklin High School one afternoon to talk to seven teens without a roof over their head, some ‘couch surfers,’” Myers said.

“Williamson County is not immune,” Goodwin said. “It’s across the board from Fairview to Brentwood.”

However, Murray says that homeless children discovered in schools represents a larger issue.

“We don’t have homeless kids. These kids are part of homeless families,” Murray said.

Homeless visible to community
Although neither the Williamson County Sheriff’s Office nor the Franklin Police Department has reported any official instances of homelessness in the county, other public servants, including teachers, counselors, nonprofit workers, and transit drivers, have seen the face of displaced individuals roaming the landscape of the city and county searching for a place to lay their head at night – a hotel, a car, a friend’s house or worst-case scenario, the ground.

“I picked up a homeless man on Hillsboro Road,” Franklin Transit Authority driver Bobby Calabrese said. “He rode to downtown, then got off the trolley. I don’t know where he went from there. I haven’t seen him in a while.”

Calabrese said that he has spotted those whom he suspects to be homeless walking in downtown evidenced by “a backpack and sleeping bag” with an unkempt look.

“I don’t know what the solution is,” Murray said. “But my goal is to build a shelter.”

“Some think that because we are the wealthiest county that we would have the most options for the homeless, but it’s just the opposite.” Many displaced individuals have few places to go when crises strikes Murray said. He searches for long-term solutions of which a shelter is only a piece of a larger picture toward self-sufficiency he says. “We would have to do it right.”

Edwards also said that GraceWorks’ increasing numbers served also include those who have always struggled.

“The poor will always be among us in any society, and the utopia of Williamson County is no different. There are the generationally poor, which won’t change anytime soon.

“It’s a reality of every county in the country,” Edwards said. “We want to pretend that we are an exception, but we are not. With people, come problems and issues.”

Some say that homeless numbers in Williamson County are still small compared to bigger cities like Nashville and even Murfreesboro.

“Fifty-two teens might not look like a large number compared to Nashville. I can’t say whether it’s a large number or a small number, but 52 is 52 too many in Williamson County,” Edwards said.

This is a two-part story. For Part I, please click here.

Posted on: 9/11/2013


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