As Alabama’s largest recipient of federal funding for low-income students and with a poverty rate greater than 50 percent, Mobile County Public Schools are tasked with educating many students whose families are struggling financially.

Yet, Denise Riemer, who oversees the system’s Homeless Education Program, said most people are shocked at how many students may not know where they’re going to sleep on any given school night.

As of January, there were more than 5,500 students being served in some capacity through the system’s Homeless Education Program — roughly 10 percent of the entire district’s population. According to Riemer, that number has remained at about the same level for several years.

“A lot of people are surprised by that because they’re thinking shelters, bridges and cars,” Riemer said. “And yes, we do have students in shelters, under bridges and in cars, but the majority of our population are those who have lost housing due to eviction or because they’re fleeing domestic violence or any number of other economic hardships.”

While the program’s name makes it seem like there may be a separate educational track for students that qualify as homeless, that’s not what Riemer and her colleagues Larissa Dickinson and Ciji Bendolph do.

All three are master’s-level social workers who assist students who don’t have a “fixed, regular or adequate” place to stay, serving as advocates for those children within the school system and helping to connect their families to a network of services in the community.

According to Riemer, the ultimate goal is to “remove barriers” affecting a child’s education so they can succeed academically. Exactly what that task entails is subject to change from day to day and case to case.

“I think it all starts with an approach of treating people with dignity and respect,” said Dickinson of her job. “We can revisit how we got into this situation or what led to homelessness, but first you have to meet them where they are and start moving forward.”

Federally funded public schools are required to comply with the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act of 1987, which, among other things, established and protected the rights of homeless students in the public school system.

While Title 1 and local dollars help maintain the program, Dickinson said the cost of serving a large population has caused the staff to “think outside of the box” — a strategy that recently earned national recognition from the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness [USICH].

While the program maintains a close relationship with Housing First Inc., that is only one of many resources available to help students and families to get back into adequate housing.

“[USICH] were interested in how we were pulling resources from within the community to help families with the rehousing process,” Dickson said. “A lot of districts are moving toward that, but we were somewhat ahead of that standard by working with the whole family.”

The “whole family” includes parents and guardians as well as siblings, even those who aren’t yet school aged and those who may live in another school district. Serving families can mean helping parents find housing, nutritional assistance or a job; in other cases it can mean helping provide students who have their own children with adequate child care to so they can graduate.

“You can put all the support in place for the student at school, but if they’re going back to instability, it’s not going to help them,” she said. “If they’re hungry, if their clothes are dirty, if they don’t have their homework or their project, they’re going to be a lot less likely to succeed academically.”

While homelessness is typically associated with extreme poverty, that isn’t always the case. After Hurricane Katrina, Riemer said the program took on 3,000 students from coastal Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi whose displacement from their homes qualified them as homeless.

Bendolph also described a number of families that are likely “a paycheck away from becoming homeless” at any time. Something like a house fire or car accident could quickly cause a family livingly comfortably to become “doubled-up” with a relative or staying in a hotel, she said.

According to Bendolph, most parents aren’t aware of rights they have under McKinney-Vento, which includes the right of homeless children to stay enrolled in their original school if they’re required to relocate to another school zone because of economic hardship.

“When you have families that are going from different family members to hotels on different nights, it’s good to have one school as a constant for the student since everything else is changing in their life,” Bendolph said. “Those peer relationships also help the child academically and socially.”

In addition to outside services, the program can help connect homeless students to MCPSS programs such as credit recovery, schools with flexible hours or alternative placement. However, Riemer said the majority are in the normal population, with many enrolled in advanced classes and international baccalaureate programs.

Her staff also works with some students during the year following graduation to help connect them to skills-training programs or tuition assistance for those who qualify for federal aid. However, Riemer said, many earn their own scholarships.

Though the Homeless Education Program has only three staff members — each serving hundreds of students in four feeder patterns —  Riemer, Dickson and Bendolph say they love their work.

“I always tell my friends and family this is best job I’ve ever had because I get to see the end results,” Bendolph said. “Sometimes we see these kids from eighth grade all the way to their senior year, and to see them move forward, graduate and becoming successful … it’s indescribable.”