Rural District Struggles with 14% Student Homeless Rate

By Katy Seiter
The Razorback Reporter

Berryville, Ark. – In the rural Berryville School District on the Missouri-Arkansas border, the struggles with poverty are real, leaving some 14% of the district’s children homeless.

“Many children are coming in unprepared because they haven’t had a good night’s sleep, they don’t have adequate clothes, they have not been fed nutritional meals on a regular basis and, many times, health care needs haven’t been met,” Lisa Geren, principal at Berryville Intermediate School. “All of this impacts the education they receive.”  

The intermediate school, grades 3-5, has 83 homeless students, roughly 17% of enrollment, the most of all schools in the Berryville District.   Federal regulations define homelessness as students staying in shelters or hotels, doubled-up with other families, living unsheltered or unaccompanied youth. The majority of Berryville students fell under the doubled-up category.

Mike Sharp has served in the Transportation Department of the Berryville School District for 20 years. As a bus driver, he has seen the doubling-up firsthand.
“There was one time, I dropped a special-needs student off at his apartment, and when I saw through the front door, I was shocked at how many people were staying in there,” Sharp said.
“I couldn’t tell you exactly how many people, or even how many bedrooms the apartment was, but it was crowded, there was a mattress on the floor. I wondered if he even had a bed to sleep on.”

With Berryville being a high poverty community, the school district has seen several families rely on doubling-up, which can lead to transient families. Some families are unable to pay when rent is due, so they leave in the middle of the night to stay at another location, sometimes out of state, and oftentimes with no warning.

“They come back when they have a little more money, but the bottom line is, it’s just a cycle. Nationally, we see this continue over and over, and becoming generational, which is the scary part of it,” Geren said.
Apryl Harmon, homeless liaison for Berryville School Districts, agreed that struggling families live together as a consequence of the high poverty in Berryville. “For many families, doubling up is the only way to get by,” Harmon said.
The broader Berryville School District was ranked fifth among 264 school districts for the most homeless students in the state of Arkansas, according to an analysis of data by the state Department of Education. According to the 2020 “point in time” census administered by Berryville School District, approximately 268 children, or 14% of their total student enrollment are homeless.
“I think a lot of it is because the support networks are not in place in our community. Like many communities in the nation, we do not have enough mental health facilities. We need a therapeutic day program, or even a residential program to help the needs of these families. Those needs are growing greater and greater every year,” Geren said.

The Berryville School District does its best to help meet the needs of these children. It is working in conjunction with a social assistance program called Bright Futures, a non-profit organization serving eight states that will let families wash their clothes for free at the laundromat or provide free haircuts.
“Bright Futures is a big deal in our district. Just yesterday we used it to purchase a pair of shoes for a student,” Geren said. “He had literally duct-taped the soles of his tennis shoes together to stop them from flapping and falling more apart.”

Before school each year, Bright Futures sets up a big event in the Bobcat Arena, a local basketball arena, so children can get school supplies, backpacks, shoes, haircuts, “anything they need,” Harmon said.

In 2019, 16% of Berryville students were enrolled in the special education program. Harmon and Geren believe there to be a correlation between the number of children in the special education program and the number of homeless children. When these homeless students fall behind academically, they are placed into the special education program.
“We feel strongly that until we can get a grip on those foundational pieces in a child’s life, the educational piece will not follow. We aren’t seeing a lot of those pieces fall into place like they should,” Geren said.

–Katy Seiter is a senior at the University of Arkansas


In the Shadow of the University, Life in a Homeless Encampment

By Katy Seiter
The Razorback Reporter

FAYETTEVILLE, AR. — William, 30, and his girlfriend lost their apartment after they missed several rent payments. With no housing and no employment, William found a new home in one of the several tent encampments in South Fayetteville, on land owned by the state’s largest university.
William set up his tent in an encampment, occupied by eight others, in a muddy area along the Town Branch Trail, a bike path used by professors and students at the nearby University of Arkansas.

The encampment was located on University of Arkansas property along the Town Branch Trail.

In this encampment, William became one of 369 unsheltered people living in Northwest Arkansas, according to a homeless services group, the Northwest Arkansas Continuum of Care. However, within only two weeks of staying there in mid-February, William found himself facing eviction, again.

Photo by Katy Seiter

“We’re getting kicked out of here now,” said William, who did not provide his last name and was apprehensive to share many details on his life. University of Arkansas Police were closing the camp after citizen complaints about trash in the nearby creek. William didn’t know where he would go next.

“Anyone who is homeless, it seems they’re trying to push us further and further out of town,” he said. “It’s farther and farther away from the facilities that help us,” he said. “That makes it even harder.”

According to Sgt. Anthony Murphy with the Fayetteville Police Department, a growing number of civilian complaints led University of Arkansas Police to close the encampment,  located on university-owned property.
“It’s become unsightly and unsanitary. Trash gets dumped along the banks of the creek, so when it floods, it washes that trash down. A lot of citizens have complained about the amount of trash that has accumulated in the creek,” Sgt. Murphy said. “It becomes a hazard; where are people going to the bathroom? It’s all happening right there.”

Trash and sanitation concerns at the site of William’s, and eight other’s, encampment.

This isn’t the first time homeless camps in south Fayetteville have been shut down. In September 2018, the University of Arkansas cleared a 60-acre plot of land, forcing approximately 100 homeless people out. Fayetteville Salvation Army responded to the closure by offering immediate overnight shelter to half of these people who had nowhere else to go. According to the university, the homeless camp was a safety concern. In the months prior to the closure, one homeless man was killed. In 2017, two deaths were reported in an encampment on university-owned property.

Finding a semi-permanent location to set up camp is hard enough, but it is not the only challenge that William is facing. As he searches for employment, his hygiene becomes one of many concerns.
“Half the time you spend most of your day just trying to get a clean shower,” William said.
“You’ll waste your entire day for that 15-minute relaxed and clean feel.” Another challenge involves just basic communication. “Whenever you’re homeless, it’s hard to even find a phone to be able to contact people about work,” William said.
William and his girlfriend went separate ways when they lost their apartment. Since then, his closest companion has been his dog, who recently suffered a broken leg after being hit by a vehicle.

“I’m supposed to keep her under close observation, otherwise she could chew her cast off. I got a note from the vet that says she needs to be kept inside, kept dry, you know, not kept in the cold,” William said. “I was gonna try to keep her with me in the cold shelter last night, and they told me that I couldn’t keep her there, so I ended up staying with her instead of being in the cold shelter.”

On that particular night in February, the low was 18 degrees.

Other homeless individuals described the challenges of living in the woods in Fayetteville. Allen, a 54-year-old native of Northwest Arkansas, has been homeless for seven years. His latest employment was in a dining hall on the University of Arkansas campus before medical issues forced him out of work. In the 1990s, Allen had an eye surgery to correct his vision, but he developed an infection and almost complete blindness in his right eye.

Allen, who did not provide his last name, qualified for financial assistance from a local eye doctor and had additional medical care, but the healing process was slow and has limited Allen’s work opportunities. Without work and without qualifying for disability, Allen began drifting from shelter to shelter during the day and staying in tents at night.

Initially, Allen stayed in an encampment, but the lack of privacy led him to move out on his own


The biggest challenge for Allen is keeping dry and keeping his belongings safe. Since he stays alone in his tent, he has no choice but to leave his belongings unguarded when he goes to the shelter. “I’ve had stuff stolen before. I don’t care if it’s just clothing, like a t-shirt. I expect somebody to do that.” But, recently, he found his prescription glasses were missing and wondered if they were stolen. “Why somebody would steal prescription glasses? I don’t know,” he said. “Sometimes people do stuff just for meanness.”

Even after spending seven years homeless, Allen remains hopeful to find permanent housing soon. His biggest hope lies in the New Beginnings Homeless Transitional Village, a temporary housing and social services village led by ServeNWA and University of Arkansas sociology professor Kevin Fitzpatrick, an expert on homeless issues. William, on the other hand, will look to settle into a new encampment location and try to find work to begin saving for an apartment.

Katy Seiter is a student at the School of Journalism and Strategic Media at the University of Arkansas

Katy Seiter Profile

Katy Seiter is an undergraduate student in the advertising and public relations sequence of journalism. She has served as a Marketing & Development intern with the Make-A-Wish Foundation for two semesters. While reporting on homelessness, she’s enjoyed becoming more involved with her community and more understanding of homelessness across the state.