Shelby County mother shares struggles of raising children while homeless

WATCH: Homeless student struggles

SHELBY CO., Tenn. — There are nearly 2,000 students across Shelby County who are homeless.

FOX13's Siobhan Riley spent time with a mother of three who slept outside for four years – some of that time while pregnant.

Samantha Turner and her family called the corner of Poplar Avenue and Avalon in Midtown home for years, living outside the Leadership building after losing her job.

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She was homeless from 2011-2014.

The whole family relied on a nearby tree for much more than shade.

"This was our closet, that's where we kept our covers, our clothes because it's hard to walk around with multiple backpacks. So, our covers, we kept them in a black duffel bag with a black garbage bag," Turner said.

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Turner and her fiancé searched for employment every day while scrambling to find food for the family.

She finally landed babysitting jobs paying as little as $25-$30 a day.

The little money she is able to earn gets her a Whitehaven apartment, where the rent is $485 a month.

And even though they have a roof over their heads now, her family – like so many families in our area –are just one missed payday away from being back on the streets.

"It's still difficult with having to have a very strict budget with three kids and it's hard," said Turner. "The income we have automatically, we know rent is coming out and so there's times I can't pay my whole light bill."

Keeping the lights on is secondary to food and shelter for her family. That is how tough it is.

The fear of being homeless again is constant. It's a condition she prays her kids will never face as adults.

And with little Ronald just starting Pre-K this year, she knows she can't be afraid to ask for help.

Shelby County Schools is there to help provide meals, school supplies and transportation to homeless students, even allowing them to enroll without records.

In May, there were 1,940 homeless or unaccompanied students in the area, which is 588 more than 2018.

Turner said the medical bills for her finance, who has stage four cancer, are piling up – which could put her family back on the street. They started this GoFundMe page to help with the expenses.

Below are some FAQs provided by SCS regarding this issue:

Just how big of a problem is homelessness amongst students in SCS? 

  • Homelessness is a growing issue in Shelby County. At present we have over 1940 students we have identified as homeless or unaccompanied who are enrolled in SCS. Last school year, 1352 students were identified.
  • The greatest challenge we face is identifying those students who are not living in shelters or working with agencies such as MIFA to secure housing options. This is due to the lack of understanding around the definition of homelessness.  Homelessness in Memphis does not look like what we see passing through large urban cities. Our homeless student population is not sleeping in the park or under bridges. Instead, they are sleeping in cars, living with different friends and family members each night or staying in motels and temporary shelters.
  • According to the Mckinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, which governs how schools assist homeless students, homeless individuals are defined as those who lack a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence. This includes:
  • 1) Children and youths who are sharing the housing of other persons due to loss of housing, economic hardship, or a similar reason; are living in motels, hotels, trailer parks, or camping grounds due to the lack of alternative adequate accommodations; are living in emergency or transitional shelters; or are abandoned in hospitals.
  • 2) Children and youths 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.
  • 3) Children and youths who are living in cars, parks, public spaces, abandoned buildings, substandard housing, bus or train stations, or similar settings.
  • 4) Migratory children.

What are some things SCS are doing to combat this problem?

  • Each school year, training is provided for SCS staff.
  • Specifically, school administrators, front office staff for each school, school counselors, PLC coaches, and district level administrators who assist with student issues such as truancy, enrollment, and registration are trained to identify families who are potentially experiencing homelessness.
  • We also provide training for charter schools and community agencies that serve homeless families and maintain working partnerships with area shelters.
  • Once students are identified, we assist the students with immediate enrollment. Students who are identified as homeless are able to enroll with or without records. We also provide the students with school supplies, uniforms, transportation to and from school and referrals to MIFA and other human service agencies.
  • To ensure progression, we have homeless specialists who collaborate with school staff to identify additional needs for support throughout the school year.

Is there anything the general public can do?

  • If you know of families with school aged children that are experiencing hardship and lack a fixed, adequate and regular nighttime residence, please encourage them to reach out to us at (901) 416-5300 or SCSHELP@SCSK12.ORG. We can help them get their children enrolled in school and provide the supports they need to attend school daily. We will even allow students to remain at their school or origin for stability. We want to help families!

Is there any specific sign administrators or anyone for that matter, should look for?

  • First, homelessness does not look any particular way. One could be homeless, but yet, have decent shoes, a cell phone and a car, which they are living in with their four children.
  • Attendance: If students are suddenly being absent from school or being dropped off or picked up late every day, that's a red flag.
  • Sudden classroom behavior changes: often times teachers will see the changes before parents say anything. Listen carefully to what students are saying and not saying/doing and not doing.
  • Shifts in hygiene patterns: Are the students clean upon arrival?  Are they wearing the same attire, daily?
  • Inability to provide proofs of residence for registration and enrollment: Some parents are very private and not willing to disclose their hardship to school staff.  When this occurs, administrators need to reach out the Office of Student Equity, Enrollment and Discipline (SEED) for guidance.