By Rose Hoban
When Michael Absher was a senior in his Hendersonville high school he lived in a homeless shelter.
Absher, now 28, stayed there for about a year after his mom had mental health issues and his grandmother, with whom he had been living, died.
“It was a really stressful time,” he said during a phone interview Wednesday.
Once he was out of school, Absher started Only Hope WNC, a not-for-profit organization that supports homeless youth in his home county of Henderson, as well as in Buncombe and Transylvania counties. So, he’s been talking with his local state representatives about a bill to make it easier for young people who are homeless and living without the input or guidance of an adult to have an easier time accessing health care.
“You made my day,” he said. “I did not know that it made it to the [House] floor.”
The bill, HB 613, handily passed the House of Representatives by a margin of 96-17 on Tuesday, ahead of a legislative deadline that requires bills to clear one chamber or else die for the remainder of the legislative biennium.
The Essential Services for Homeless Youth bill would make it easier for kids who are “unaccompanied” by any adults in their lives to more easily receive basic medical care, including physical screening exams so they can play school sports and receive mental health, dental and vision services.
In the past, with no adult to provide consent, these homeless kids instead went without, or ended up in emergency departments.
More than you think
In a meeting of the Homelessness, Foster Care and Dependency Committee last week, bill sponsor Susan Fisher (D-Asheville) laid out eye-popping statistics on homelessness among North Carolina’s young people.[sponsor]
“Public schools in North Carolina identified 2,650 unaccompanied homeless youth enrolled in school in the 2017 school year,” she told the committee. “This was an increase of 8 percent over the previous year.”
She explained that these numbers only count youth who are enrolled in school and who school staff know to be homeless and unaccompanied.
“Real numbers are much higher than that,” Fisher told the committee.”While public schools identified 18,364 unaccompanied homeless youth in the 2016-17 school year, the largest national study of homelessness in youth found that 700,000 youth under the age of 18 experience homelessness … each year.”
Fisher pointed out the kids are not in foster care but simply living on their own, whether because of parental drug use, incarceration, mental health issues, even death. She explained kids might hide their status from school officials because they don’t want to be placed in foster care.
“Suicide is a very high risk for homeless unaccompanied youth, prescription drug misuse, very high risk for homeless youth who are unable to access mental health services and treatment and instead use substances as a coping mechanism,” she said.
Those statistics were echoed by Johnnye Waller, an assistant superintendent of the Lee County Schools, who attended last week’s committee hearing.
“At this point, we have already identified 320 homeless students with 68 of those also identified as unaccompanied,” she said about Lee County. “Our district should far exceed this number by the end of the year.”
She explained that federal law allows a school district to enroll children without adult involvement into school, “however, we cannot get them access to basic healthcare needs that are so important to their welfare.”
After Waller and others testified about the need for the bill, Rep. John Torbett (R-Stanley) leaned forward.
“You kind of sucked the air out of my lungs when you said 300 kids,” he said. “What do they do? Where do they sleep at night?”
Waller responded these kids often couch surf, live in shelters, in cars, in trailer and RV parks, and doubled up with friends.
“They may not know tomorrow where they may be staying,” she responded. “It’s a whole gamut.”
Definitions of homelessness debated
After passing through the committee on a unanimous vote last week, the bill was debated on the floor of the House of Representatives on Tuesday, where some members expressed concerns that the federal definition of homelessness has caused some school districts to spend extra money on busing.
“According to the federal definition of homelessness, if a person … even moves in with their grandparents or parents they are classified as homeless and they have to be transported to their school of origin,” said Rep. Allen McNeill (R-Asheboro), who previously served on the Randolph County school board. “It seems to me we’re using the same definition of homelessness here and I think we’re fixing to do something here that probably has some unintended consequences.”
“I know [the bill sponsors’] heart is in the right place,” said Rep. Donna White (R-Clayton), who also objected to using the federal definition of homelessness. She argued that a child could be declared homeless, “if they just declare they don’t want to be living with momma and daddy anymore.”
But Michael Absher, who now serves on the school board in Henderson, said that he has involvement with as many as 1,500 homeless youths in his three-county area each year, and the vast majority have no parents in their lives because those parents have abdicated their responsibilities.
“A lot of the parents that I’ve worked with really don’t care,” he said, sighing. “Or they claim that they care but they don’t want to be there, they only care when it’s convenient for them.
“I’ve been at this for nine years … and I probably have met four or five kids that just totally just didn’t want to be at home,” Absher said. “Out of all those, there was something else going on.”
Other legislators expressed concern that if the bill became law, it’d give too much latitude to school counselors to approve health care.
“This allows a school counselor to sign off on mental illness treatment,” said Rep. David Rogers (R-Rutherfordton). “That should scare the heck out of you, that a school counselor can sign off on a child without a court being involved, without a parent being involved going to get mental illness treatment.”
Rep. Josh Dobson (R-Nebo) pointed out that young people who go looking for medical care have a burden of proof, and they’re required to get school counselors, school social workers, designees or governmental agencies or others to attest that they lack any significant parental involvement.
“The problem of unaccompanied homeless minors transcends the urban-rural divide,” he said. “This is a real problem.”
Correction: We originally stated that Michael Absher was still driving a school bus. He now runs Only Hope WNC full-time and serves on the local school board.