Lucille Green dreams of getting her own place, where she can make a big Thanksgiving dinner and set up a Christmas tree for her 11-year-old son, Jaemari.
And after years of moving around and living with family, Green is finally on track for making that dream a reality.
A high school dropout and single mother, Green has been trying hard to build a stable life for herself and the youngest of her four children ever since she came to Frederick from Annapolis in 2009.
But with no marketable skills and experience, Green was struggling for direction and had to ask her oldest daughter to take Jaemari until she discovered Advocates for Homeless Families Inc., a group that helps homeless families find a path to independence.
While completing the group’s intensive two-year program, Green began building her job and life skills, got a full-time job at Goodwill and, in July, moved into an independent transitional housing apartment in Frederick, across the street from Lincoln Elementary School, where her son goes to school.
“Jaemari was so excited to get a room of his own,” said Green, whose three other children are grown up. “It felt so good just to say we have a place we can call a home.”
However, because they live in transitional housing, Green and her son are still considered homeless. At least now, though, she is optimistic about Jaemari’s future. After attending three schools and having to be held back one grade, he is finally getting a sense of stability and routine.
“He feels more relaxed here than he has ever been before,” she said. “He is getting involved into so many things.”
In Frederick County Public Schools, Jaemari’s experience is a part of a growing statistic.
The number of homeless students in the county is growing, said Zoe Carson, the school system’s homeless education program coordinator.
Since 2004-05 when the school system had 145 homeless students, that number has more than tripled. In 2011-12, the school system identified 541 homeless students — a slight dip from 568 in the year before, Carson said. But this year, the numbers are again on the rise, she said.
“The fact that we are already up to 444 students for this year leads me to believe we will exceed our numbers for both of the past two years,” Carson said.
“It is pretty much what is happening around the state and around the nation,” she said. “It is a phenomenon that is happening everywhere.”
Driven mostly by the stagnant economy, the number of homeless students is increasing nationwide. In 2010-11, American public schools enrolled more than one million homeless children for a first time in history, according to data released by the U.S. Department of Education in June.
And that may underestimate the real number because it does not take into account homeless infants or students who are not enrolled in public schools, according to the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty.
Maryland is also a part of that trend. The numbers of homeless students statewide have increased from 6,750 in 2004-05 to 14,136 in 2010-11, according to Carson’s statistics.
In 2010-11, Frederick County ranked ninth in the state in the number of homeless students, the figures show.
The most homeless students for that year were located in Prince George’s County, with 2,777, followed by Baltimore City, 2,388, and Baltimore County, 1,916. In comparison, Montgomery County ranked sixth, Howard County eighth, and Carroll County was 14th.
In Frederick County, the economy appears to be one of the major factors for the increase, according to Carson, who said she has seen many cases of families losing their housing after a parent loses a job.
But in recent years, the trend has also started to change the face of homeless students in the county.
In the past, homeless families came mostly from generational poverty, but today county school homeless coordinators say they are working more with students from middle-class families with college-educated parents who were hit by the recession.
“We sort of refer to them as the ‘former middle class,’” Carson said. “We are seeing qualified parents who are able and willing to work.”
In those cases, usually one problem leads to an avalanche of issues that end in loss of housing. Sometimes it starts with a health problem, a divorce or the loss of one parent’s income, Carson said.
“It is a combination of factors,” she said. “But it just takes one thing to start it off.”
Matt Johnston, a social studies teacher at Frederick High School, agreed.
Over the years, Johnston has worked with seven homeless students who took Advanced Placement classes, two of whom went on to complete their college educations.
“Often these students seem to work even harder than other kids,” Johnston wrote in an email to The Gazette. “What I often do is provide them with two textbooks, one to use in school or leave at a second location, and one that they can stash wherever they are calling ‘home.’”
However, homeless students still face many challenges that they have to overcome on a daily basis.
Some of them tend to miss school because they end up taking care of younger siblings while their parents are at work. Others have no access to a shower or clean clothes and are simply too embarrassed to come to class, Johnston said.
In the past, he kept toiletries in his classroom so that one homeless student could come in and clean up at school.
“The kids are in my experience (are) mortified if anyone were to find out,” he said in the email. “Sadly, they see it as a personal failing (or one on the part of their parent), and they have very strong feelings for the most part toward anyone finding out. I have had to reassure some kids nearly every day that I will never say anything to anyone about their situation.”
County educators are particularly concerned with homelessness because it can have detrimental effects on students and their education.
If students are moving around from place to place, if they see their parents crying or fighting, if they don't have a routine and an adequate place to sleep, school would be the last thing on their minds, said Tammy Sherrard, community liaison and homeless coordinator at Crestwood Middle School.
“These kids live with anxiety,” she said. “They know exactly what is going on with their family. When you are going home to a hotel, the last thing on your mind is homework.”
Sherrard this year is working with 10 families that are struggling with homelessness. Two of those families live in motels, another two live in transitional housing, similar to Green’s accommodations, and at least one family is in a homeless shelter. The rest are doubled up and sharing a home with family members or friends, Sherrard said.
“With some of them, it is just incredibly bad luck,” Sherrard said.
In one of her cases, a mother moved to Frederick County for a job offer that fell through and left her scrambling for money, she said.
“People think that these are people mooching off the system,” she said. “But most of my families want to be working, they want to be on their own. ... Once you are in this situation, it is very difficult to claw your way out.”
Over the years, county public schools have also made steps to increase the help and assistance they provide to homeless families, Carson said.
Today, every school in the system has a homeless coordinator who works with families and guides them to resources and help. The homeless coordinator can also work with teachers and let them know when a student is not ready for class because the family had to spend the night at a shelter.
In Frederick County, homeless students are entitled to transportation to school no matter where they are staying, so they can remain at the same school even when their family moves around. Homeless students also receive free lunch and breakfast at school.
In the last three years, the school system also created a part-time position for a coordinator to oversee the homeless student program, train school-based coordinators, connect families with the services in the community and provide them with gift gards for gas, clothes, toiletries, backpacks or other school supplies for students.
“There has definitely been an improvement,” said Carson, who currently holds that position.
Carson said the school system has also been receiving a federal grant that allowed it to provide additional tutoring for homeless students.
The school system has received $37,000 though the grant this year and will be able to hold the tutoring program again, Carson said.
But no one knows if the money will be available again next year, she said.