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Durham Public Schools' Ebony Ross Takes Leadership Role in Combating Homelessness, Elected Vice Chair of HSAC

Ebony Ross

Ebony Ross, the McKinney Vento Liaison for Durham Public Schools, has been elected the vice chair of the Durham Homeless Services Advisory Committee (HSAC), which will allow her to expand the work she is already doing in her role in Student Support Services: Help those experiencing homelessness.

The McKinney Vento Homeless Assistance Act provides services for those experiencing homelessness, as well as ensures the educational rights of children and youth experiencing homelessness. In her role as liaison, Ross helps advocate for these students and works to remove barriers so that they can attend school. Under the definition of the act, these students may be living with someone else or living in a hotel, car, or shelter. This is different from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) definition of homelessness, which requires that people are unsheltered and living on the streets.

In her role on the HSAC, Ross will work with other advocates from around Durham to discuss possible solutions to help those experiencing homelessness in the county. Ross serves as a representative of DPS on the committee, along with Board of Education Member Natalie Beyer. Other people on the committee include representatives from the county, emergency services personnel, and other community leaders.

As the vice chair, Ross said that she is being mentored to take over as chair of the committee for the 2024-25 term.

“Ebony brings crucial perspective and expertise to the HSAC as it relates to our DPS young people and families. As we see increases in families experiencing homelessness, Ebony leads connection and communication across our education system to our city/county system as a part of a collective HSAC effort to advise on the implementation of collaborative initiatives to prevent and end homelessness,” said Eliza Mathew, the chair of the HSAC. “Ebony has already served several years on the Policy and Planning Committee. This committee sets priorities for funding when appropriate, updates and approves system policies to meet needs, and seeks solutions for system challenges. Her leadership skills, expertise and compassion will make her an excellent chair.”

Ross said that one priority for the committee right now is finding winter shelter or warming stations for those experiencing homelessness as it has been very cold this season. She said that work has involved connecting people with local services, such as helping them get into shelters. The committee has also worked on options such as having designated safe parking areas, like in church parking lots, or getting people into temporary shelters, like currently unused houses.

“It’s so cold, and we don’t have the capacity to house and give families what they need during this time,” she said. “It’s disheartening, and it’s challenging. The things that families need outside of school my funding can’t support.”

Ross said that another focus for the committee has been helping people find wraparound services – supports and programs that help them when they are leaving shelters.

In addition to her role on the HSAC, Ross was also recently elected to the leadership team of the North Carolina Homeless Education Program (NCHEP), which works to ensure that all youth experiencing homelessness have access to public education. The program does this by ensuring that state policies adhere to federal law, offering technical assistance to local liaisons across the state, and providing educational and awareness resources.

Ross’ work on the leadership team will involve supporting other McKinney Vento liaisons around the state, such as by arranging professional development and connecting liaisons with mentors. The leadership team also works to identify strategies and services for students experiencing homelessness, address challenges and barriers, develop state action plans, and strengthen collaborations.

Lisa Phillips, the state coordinator for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth, and Neely Ward, the program coordinator for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth, issued a joint statement about Ross’ selection to the committee.

“Her persistence to learn and provide quality training and information on the educational rights of students experiencing homelessness to parents/guardians as well as to those in the district and the community has been essential to her growth,” they said. “We are excited to have Mrs. Ross as a part of the NCHEP Leadership Team and look forward to supporting her continued growth as an educator.”

Through her work on the NCHEP and the HSAC, Ross said she hopes to work on larger systems to combat homelessness and help the rising number of people in need.

“I’m making sure that students are getting what they need so they can be successful and graduating. I’m advocating for programs and systems to be in place so we can support our people here in Durham,” she said. “The numbers are rising, and people cannot afford the rent. People have to be aware that this is indeed a crisis. When I think about Durham and how much money is in Durham, there should be no reason why we’re fighting for resources.”

Ross said that those who are interested in supporting this work can attend the HSAC meetings on the fourth Wednesday of each month, from 3-4:30 p.m. The meetings are virtual. Information can be found on the City of Durham website.