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Report: 140 homeless students in Preston County

KINGWOOD — As of Oct. 14, Preston County Schools had identified 140 homeless students.
Of those, 127 were “doubled up,” that is, because of an economic hardship, they are staying with someone else and have no permanent home of their own. Twenty-three of the students are being cared for by relatives.
“That’s where homelessness [in Preston] really differs from other counties that have a shelter,” said Stormy Matlick, student support specialist for Preston County Schools.
She believes the only true way to count the number of homeless in Preston County would be to go door-to-door.
“That’s a really, really low number, because it’s more acceptable up here to say, ‘Hey, we’re just going to stay with my parents for a little while.’ So they don’t think that describes them as homeless,” Matlick said.
But there are other scenarios, too, said Matlick and Carol Riley, county attendance coordinator and liaison for the school system’s programs for the homeless.
“They could be living in a camper or in their car,” Riley said. “Walmart parking lot is usually where they stay because they have 24-hour access to the restrooms staying there.”
Preston students have also been found living in campers.
Sometimes it’s temporary, while a home is built or circumstances work out, Riley said. “And sometimes the camper is on grandparents’ property and their house isn’t big enough for the other family to live in the home,” Riley said.
There are also students living in a hotel or motel, Riley said.
What is homelessness?
The federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act defines homeless as:
Individuals who lack a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence.
Those who are sharing the housing of others due to loss of housing, economic hardship or similar reasons.
Living in motels, hotels, trailer parks or camping grounds due to lack of alternative accommodations; living in emergency or transitional shelters; abandoned in hospitals.
Those who have a primary nighttime residence that is a public or private place not designed for or ordinarily used as a regular sleeping accommodation for human beings.
Those living in cars, parks, public spaces, abandoned buildings, substandard housing, bus or train stations, or similar settings.
Migratory children.
Help from many sources
A pamphlet is sent home with every Preston County student that defines homelessness and gives examples of help available.
“Since we don’t have an actual shelter, our hotels have become that emergency shelter, so to speak,” Matlick said.
Sometimes families are referred to Bartlett House in Morgantown, Riley said. And sometimes they need transportation to Bartlett House, she added.
At the end of the last school year, Preston had identified 102 homeless students. Two months into this school year, the numbers exceed that.
“We’re going in the right direction as far as being able to pull these families out and identify,” Matlick said.
Part of her job is to make families aware what resources are available.
Riley recalls helping to write the first McKinney- Vento grant application about 15 years ago. “It has changed and evolved in those 15 years,” she said.
“And I think one of the reasons why we were able to identify and help so many more people is because we put into the grant a position,” now held by Matlick.
Preston’s most recent McKinney-Vento grant was about $9,000 for the half year.
“It takes time to reach out and connect with these families, and then it takes time to be successful in helping them,” Riley said.
Help can range from helping to fill out a HUD housing application — Matlick helped with 76 last year — to finding tires for the car so a student can get to class.
Matlick also reaches out to businesses, churches and organizations for help.
She attended all the back-to-school events, told new teachers what she can do, talked with bus drivers and with school counselors. She works with Community Action, Christian Help and other agencies.
There is a great fear among homeless parents that, if they ask for help, Child Protective Services will take their kids, Matlick said. That isn’t the case if the children’s needs are being met, she said.
She tells parents, “This is just a bump in the road, it’s not a reason to call CPS, and I want to help them to get back on their feet. I want to help them change their situation.”
A video on the Preston County Schools Facebook page is aimed at introducing Matlick as a non-threatening resource and explaining what help is available.
Through the grandfamilies coalition, she works with grandparents who are caring for related children.
Addiction is a major contributor to homelessness and other family members raising children, Riley said. Last year, one or both parents of 100 of the children identified as homeless were addicted, Matlick said.
McKinney-Vento can buy up to five outfits of clothing and school supplies, for example, or help with tutoring. Often homeless students move from school to school, so sometimes transportation is paid so the student can remain at one school.
Last year, for example, when a Bruceton Mills family went to the Bartlett House, Matlick worked with Mon County Schools so the children could ride the bus to Bruceton School until the family got jobs and settled in Morgantown, then the children transferred there.
The faith community of Preston County is supportive, Matlick said. For example, 16 churches provide hygiene bags for students.
In past years, Preston also received grants from BB&T, ranging from $30,000 to $70,000. Some of that money is still being used to help people retain permanent housing, such as by paying a month’s rent.
The money also was used for such things as paying fees for a homeless student to apply to college. A student attending evening classes, who was in danger of dropping out because the car was in disrepair, was helped with new tires.
Through BB&T’s grants, they kept about 23 families from becoming homeless, Riley said.
Before using grant resources, Matlick ensures all other resources are exhausted, to stretch the system’s resources.
“Whatever we can do to help them in their educational experience and to help them progress educationally past high school,” is done, Riley said.
Matlick believes, “the answer will always be no, if you don’t ask,” so she goes to community groups and businesses, asking for help.
“Our communities are amazing in helping us help these families and these children,” Riley said.
An example was when teachers at a school prepaid an account at a community business, where a family could go to buy milk and other groceries.
“You can’t tell Stormy there isn’t a way, because she’ll find a way,” Riley said.
Recently Matlick got her first thank-you note in the job. But, “The reward is seeing these students come to school in better spirits because they now have a house to go to or they now have whatever,” she said.