The Daily Tar Heel

Serving the students and the University community since 1893

Thursday October 28th

We talked to the principal at Phoenix Academy High about serving homeless students

John Williams is the principal of Phoenix Academy in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools district. Photo courtesy of John Williams.
Buy Photos John Williams is the principal of Phoenix Academy in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools district. Photo courtesy of John Williams.

Serving students and staff with compassion is every high school principal’s wish. John Williams, the principal of Phoenix Academy High School, is no exception. Williams has served this Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools District high school for seven years and continues to help students and staff through his service. Through an email interview with the Daily Tar Heel, he reveals the key to his compassion for helping homeless students and families. 

The Daily Tar Heel: Please discuss your passion in helping the homeless families. 

John Williams: People often confuse my desire to help the students and staff I serve or those possibly less fortunate than myself with some kind of passion. As I often tell people, I have very little passion about most things. In fact, I am not certain I would be able to do the job that I do if I was very passionate about it. 

Instead, what I share with most people is that what they see in me is not an internal passion for the work I do, but compassion for the people I serve. As I often share with the students and staff I serve, "I know what will happen to you if you succeed, and I know what will happen to you if you don't." 

Addressing affordable housing in isolation is identical to addressing the school system's achievement gap — the injustices in law enforcement/criminal justice system, income inequality, health care inequality and any other social injustice in isolation. It simply does not work.  In essence, I believe a comprehensive community approach, which requires an intentional comprehensive collaboration between many of the social services agencies, safety departments, health facilities, economic and housing organizations would facilitate a permanent change to any of these areas of community concerns.

DTH: What can the county do for students? 

JW: Addressing affordable housing in isolation will result in similar outcomes as addressing the school system's achievement gap, the injustices in law enforcement/criminal justice system, income/employment inequalities and the deprivation of quality health care for some community members. Addressing any of these issues in isolation will keep a lot of people employed and for a long time. I believe counties would need to create a comprehensive approach that would focus on the equitable distribution of resources in all areas. Waiting until a family is homeless before we recognize the need for help is shortsighted and preventable. Therefore, addressing any of the social, economic, health, housing and justice issues with the serious consideration and impact of all of the other issues will allow the community to collaborative come together and address the serious needs of the less fortunate in the community with quantifiable and sustainable results. 

DTH: How severely can homelessness impact education? 

JW: Homelessness impacts every aspect of an individual/family psyche. In essence, homelessness affects the very soul and spirit of the people being impacted. Therefore, not only is education impacted, the mental, physical and spiritual health of any individual is affected, as well. It is fairly easy for anyone to envision the impact of homelessness on a child, when that child is sitting in a classroom thinking about where they will be sleeping or if they will get any sleep at night. However, even greater concerns are the issues of the child worrying about their safety, food or clean water in which to bathe so that they do not smell the next day in school. The issues go on and on. Some students in school may be worried about taking a computer home at night, whereas homeless students worry if they will have electricity at night or a warm bed to sleep in when it is time to turn off the lights they do not have. 

DTH: What recommendations do you have for the Chapel Hill community in terms of helping the homeless families? 

JW: When given the chance to serve these families, don't simply try to find them a place to live.  Instead, try to provide wraparound supports and services to address the families' income, mental health (if necessary), employment and other social services supports in order to make sure these families would someday be able to stand independently and not depend on a handout.


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