Moore County Schools high school social workers see them every day: students working to earn a diploma while effectively fending for themselves outside of school.
Those students may not actually be living on the streets, but whether they’ve aged out of foster care, their parents are in jail, or they’ve fled from a dysfunctional or abusive family, about 70 Moore County public school students are not living with a parent or legal guardian.
The district enrolls those students as “unaccompanied youth” without a fixed home address. Some take shelter in public parks or live in hotels, couch surf with friends’ families, or rotate among the homes of their own family members. The luckier ones find stability with a reliable “host home.”
“Those are rare, and we let those happen naturally. As long as there’s some type of agreement between the parents, we keep them enrolled as an unaccompanied youth,” said Pinecrest social worker Tambra Chamberlain.
While some areas of North Carolina have shelters and resource centers for homeless teenagers, Moore County isn’t one of them; teens who have suffered domestic violence and teen mothers fall into the populations served by existing nonprofits.
Led by Chamberlain, an interfaith steering committee, unaffiliated with Moore County Schools, has been working for the last year toward establishing a safety net for homeless youth here. The group is now establishing a board of directors with the goal of becoming a nonprofit and making the Moore County Transitional Home for Young Women a reality.
With the support of local churches, the committee has established emergency funds available at all three high schools. With that fund — about $2,500 for a year at Pinecrest — social workers can help meet homeless students’ immediate material needs, most often for food and clothing. But for students unsure where they’ll be sleeping from night to night, school counselors’ resources are limited.
The group’s longer term plan is to fundraise to establish a center for students in need. Members have visited the Methodist Home for Children in Raleigh and have begun developing a program that would help young women aged 16-19 not only finish a high school diploma or GED, but acquire the tools to live independently like interviewing skills, a driver’s license, and applying for post-secondary education.
“It wasn’t just about a place to stay; it was also about a place for growth and healing,” Chamberlain said of the Methodist program. “We don’t want to start something and then a year or two down the line it closes, because it’s not going to do anything but hurt the youth we intend to help.”
Kymberli Barker, a former teacher who taught for more than a decade at Union Pines and North Moore, has come on board to start identifying potential funding sources, both through grants and from community sponsors. She is finishing a PhD in forensic psychology, has researched the causes of repeat victimization, and is a nationally certified trainer in child abuse prevention.
Barker suspects that the students officially on the school district’s records as “unaccompanied” are an underrepresentation of the population of children actually living in unstable environments.
“As an educator you’re aware that there are individuals who are in this situation, but unless a student comes to you and says, ‘I have no place to go,’ it doesn’t really hit you,” she said.
Before she started teaching, Barker directed a facility in Gastonia for adults with developmental disabilities. She’s working on a volunteer basis now, but plans to stay on as the program director if the center comes to fruition.
“With the dynamics that we have here, with the wide range of income and education that is in Moore County, we need as many people involved with supporting this project as we can get,” she said.
About half a dozen people have stepped up to serve on the center’s founding board of directors, but organizers would like to have up to 15 members representing local social service organizations, mental health providers and local businesses.
The board held its first meeting in early February at The Village Chapel’s Care Cottage in Pinehurst. For information about the project, email Chamberlain at email@example.com.