There are hundreds of homeless children living on the Virginia Peninsula, according to local Homeless Education Liaisons.
Liaisons, assigned to every school division across the country, track homeless students and coordinate a range of mandated services under the federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Education Assistance Act.
The law, put in place in 1987 and amended by the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001, aims to combat barriers that prevent homeless children from enrolling, attending and succeeding in school.
Under McKinney-Vento, homelessness is defined by a child's nighttime residence. The criteria for homelessness include: sleeping in a car, abandoned building or public space, a shelter, doubled-up with another family, a campground, or hotel/motel room.
The number of homeless students across the state has nearly doubled in recent years from 9,898 in 2006-07 to 17,940 in 2011-12, according to data collected by Project HOPE – Virginia, a collaboration between the Virginia Department of Education and the College of William and Mary.
The number of students living in hotels and motels has increased, too, with 1,544 in 2006-07 to 2,413 in 2011-12.
Locally, about one-quarter to one-third of homeless families live in hotels and motels at some point throughout the year, but that number changes often, according to liaisons for both Hampton and Newport News public schools. Families may double-up or find temporary shelter elsewhere when they can't pay for a hotel room.
"Lots of our (homeless) families are transient," said Ivy Lee, liaison for Hampton City Schools.
McKinney-Vento requires school divisions to provide a range of stability services for homeless students, including free transportation to and from the child's school of origin and automatic enrollment for free school lunch.
School divisions are also required to immediately enroll homeless students in school regardless of their ability to provide records or meet other standard enrollment requirements.
Patricia Popp, state coordinator for the education of homeless children and youth through Project HOPE-Virginia, said liaisons have reported a wide range of personalities and reponses they've witenssed through working with homeless children.
Some homeless students struggle academically and some require special education assistance, she said. Others take on responsibilities, often parental roles, as a reaction to their circumstances.
"Children don't come in with the word homeless stamped across their forehead," she said. "Children will respond differently.... There's no one-size-fits-all."
Popp said experts are starting to look at how homelessness affects children through a "trauma lens." Sometimes the behaviors are bottled up, she said, and some children experience post-traumatic stress symptoms years later.
But Popp said she's seen major improvements in students' academic success within the last five or six years, which she attributes to school divisions doing a better job of providing stability services to homeless kids.
Popp said she wants school to be a place where children can grow beyond their circumstances.
"That's kind of my hope," she said.