There are 1,100 homeless students in Harlan County. These students want to change that.
On a muggy afternoon in rural Harlan County last month, 18-year-old Rebecca Carriker woke up, once again, without running water.
Carriker lives in conditions that are unthinkable for most Kentuckians. Her home consists of two dark, stuffy rooms, made even stuffier by the lack of air conditioning. She shares a mattress with her mother on a cluttered floor. A bucket stands in place for a toilet.
There are more than 1,100 Harlan County students designated as homeless under a U.S. Department of Education definition of homeless, which includes living in substandard housing. Carriker was one of them before graduating high school last month.
She’s also the type of student who could have possibly benefited from the CHHAR project — a developing effort in Harlan County to build a 20-unit community of tiny homes to serve homeless students and people getting out of drug rehabilitation.
Like many homeless students in Harlan County, Carriker found it difficult to get to school. Her mother doesn’t own a vehicle, so if she missed the bus, she had no way to get there.
Much of the time, though, Carriker missed school because she was embarrassed. Her clothes go unwashed for weeks. She often can’t shower for just as long. Sometimes, she was just too hungry to get out of bed.
“When you’re starving, you don’t want to do anything,” Carriker said.
Harlan County Schools has the second highest percentage of homeless students in the state, according to data from the Kentucky Department of Education. More than one in every four students are considered homeless.
While most of those students live in more habitable conditions than Carriker, she isn’t alone.
Gina Stewart, the homeless coordinator for Harlan County Schools, said she’s in frequent contact with about two dozen students who live in housing that mirrors or is worse than Carriker’s.
Attendance is the biggest educational hurdle for those students. Transportation and embarrassment account for many absences.
“They know they’re different,” Stewart said.
For most students living in substandard housing, Stewart said drug abuse by parents or other family members plays a major role (Carriker’s mother does not use drugs). Some of those students tell Stewart they miss school because they’re afraid to leave family members at home alone, where they could overdose.
Still, many homeless students manage to graduate. Some even excel.
This year, Harlan County Schools bought 16 caps and gowns for graduating students who couldn’t afford them. Of the school’s top 27 ACT scorers, 16 of the students were considered homeless.
Despite the success of many individual homeless students, the students leading the CHHAR tiny home project agree that unstable or inadequate housing makes school more difficult.
“You can’t focus on an algebra test when you don’t know where you’re going to sleep at and it’s too cold to sleep outside,” said Caleb Ashley, one of the students leading the project.
Ashley said drug abuse and homelessness are intertwined, so helping folks stay sober could, in time, lead to a lower rate of homelessness among students.
“We feel like the youth homelessness crisis and the drug crisis go hand in hand because of students becoming homeless because of parents’ overdose, incarceration, things like that,” Ashley said. “It’s just a cycle.”
No shelter. No bus. No job.
According to data from the Kentucky Department for Education, there are eight school districts in the state where 20 percent or more of students are classified as homeless.
Statewide, nearly 24,000 students were considered homeless in the 2017-18 school year.
The U.S. Department of Education’s definition of homeless includes students who have no reliable place to sleep at night, don’t live with a parent or guardian, or live in substandard housing.
For students in Harlan County and other rural areas, housing options are slim. There are no year-round homeless shelters in the county, and transportation to-and-from grocery stores is difficult for those without a vehicle.
Christ’s Hands, Inc., which is helping build homes for the CHHAR project, operates an emergency shelter from Dec. 1 through Feb. 28. It is the only shelter in Harlan County.
Carriker said the CHHAR project could provide hope to students like her, but she said county and state officials should also focus on funding public transportation, which could provide a broader solution to the problem of student homelessness.
For even a part-time job, Carriker would have to walk more than a half hour along U.S. Route 119, the main thoroughfare for much of southeastern Kentucky, to get to work.
“People who don’t live it don’t see it,” said Stewert, the homeless coordinator. “They don’t realize we don’t have transportation here.”
Tiny transitional housing
The tiny house project — its full name is Community Homes for Homelessness and Addiction Recovery — aims to create a small community that will provide housing for homeless students and for people getting out of drug rehabilitation programs.
The Harlan County Fiscal Court and a number of other community partners have joined to build and pay for the homes, and to navigate the legalities of housing homeless students. A group of Harlan County Schools students manage the project’s website, and act as its spokespeople.
Placing homeless students won’t be easy, Pace said.
Housing students who are under the age of 18 presents a number of legal hurdles, so the project may only be able to house 18-year-olds, and people getting out of drug rehab, Pace said.
The community will be next to the Cumberland Hope Center, a drug treatment facility, and officials have already broken ground. Three of the tiny homes are completed and purchased, and a fourth is in the works.
Harlan County Judge-Executive Dan Mosley said residents at CHHAR will stay in the homes for six months and learn life skills, such as how to manage a bank account and apply for jobs.
Each home will hopefully be outfitted with a computer and Internet access, so residents can potentially work for Teleworks USA, a work-from-home project founded in 2011 by the Eastern Kentucky Concentrated Employment Program, Inc.
He hopes to have the tiny houses placed and operational by the spring of 2020.
“It’s kind of a true life investment that we’re trying to make here, and we feel like it gives them a better chance of success,” Mosley said.
The county and state have a number of quality drug treatment programs, he said, but the lack of a post-treatment process often leads people to return to the places where they started using drugs.
“It’s just making our recidivism rates very high,” Mosley said.
The students at Harlan County High School said they hope their involvement will put pressure on local officials as the project moves forward.
“It just creates more responsibility for them to make sure to push it as fast as it can possibly be pushed,” Ashley said. “Cause it’s like, there’s people homeless every day. Each day we finish this quicker is a day they don’t have to spend in the elements.”