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 Article of Interest - Education

School can serve as anchor for homeless kids
by Melissa Harris, Orlando Sentinel, November 4, 2002
For more articles visit www.bridges4kids.org


Just about everything has changed for Deonte and Marquan Moore since their mother moved them and their two sisters to Orlando from South Carolina last year.

They came to town homeless, eventually found a home in their grandparents' one-bedroom apartment on Holden Avenue and quickly wound up back in a shelter when the family was evicted.

Just a year and a half in Central Florida, 8-year-old Deonte and Marquan, 9, have been uprooted three times, switched schools three times and acquired a new baby sister along the way. Their only constant has been catching the school bus in the mornings and riding back each afternoon.

The boys -- shy, quiet and prone to big grins -- are two faces of a burgeoning problem.

Across Central Florida, schools are seeing a dramatic increase in the number of homeless children they serve.

Orange County estimates that 900 homeless children are in school this year -- living in shelters or motels, bunk-hopping from friends to relatives, sometimes sleeping in vehicles.

That number, school officials say, has jumped 44 percent from an average of 624 homeless children the system handled in the 2001-02 school year.

Orange County also estimates that there are 3,240 homeless children living in the county, ranging from babies and toddlers too young for classes to teenagers who dropped out of school.

"It's raining homeless people here," says Cindy Shaw, the homeless coordinator at Robert E. Lee Middle School, who was up until 1 a.m. Thursday trying to get a family placed in a shelter. "In less than two days, I've had seven homeless students come to my attention whom I didn't know about."

Getting a head count of homeless schoolchildren beyond Orange County is difficult because other counties in Central Florida are less systematic about tracking them or don't track them at all. But officials at most school districts say they know the numbers are growing rapidly.

Experts say the instability of being homeless leads to depression, anxiety and stress, plus school transfers, absences and low grades. And, they say, children fall up to six months behind when they have to adjust to a new teacher, new classmates and a new curriculum.

Almost half of all homeless children do not attend school on a regular basis, missing 15 or more days in a three-month period, according to the U.S. Department of Education. And many students have difficulty enrolling because they lack immunization records, an address or birth certificates.

When the Moore boys first moved to Orlando in the spring of 2001, they started classes at Fern Creek Elementary. When they moved in with grandparents Ralph and Dorothy Bryant, they moved to Pine Castle Elementary. Now, living at a shelter operated by Orlando's Coalition for the Homeless, they are back at Fern Creek.

Marquan, who takes special-education courses and tests at the level of a 31/2-year-old, blossomed while at Pine Castle, where he was under the supervision of a teacher and four assistants, Ralph Bryant said.

"I wish all this switching wasn't necessary," he said. "I would have loved to have kept Marquan" in the same school.

He's also concerned about the effect on Deonte. Once an honor-roll student, Deonte now has trouble paying attention in class.

And where the Moore boys used to tell their friends about the two pools at their grandparents' apartment complex, they now keep quiet about where they live. They spend their after-school hours in a program with about 40 other homeless kids.

The number of children housed by the Coalition for the Homeless, the region's largest shelter agency, has more than doubled in one year from 68 last summer to 171 now -- a record for the organization.

"When I first came to the coalition two years ago, seeing the number of kids on campus horrified me," says Robert H. Brown, the agency's president. "Now the line for dinner looks like a long line of moms waiting to take their children to an amusement park."

These families -- often headed by single mothers who are destitute and have nowhere to turn -- are driving a growing homeless population once dominated by lone men.

Families with children are the fastest-growing segment of the nation's homeless population, according to the National Coalition for the Homeless. At least 1.35 million children live without permanent housing during a year's time, representing 39 percent of the homeless population as a whole, the national group says.

Marilyn Gordon, executive director of the Homeless Services Network of Central Florida, says there are still school districts that are reluctant to address these children's needs.

"Many say, 'They don't live in a home, therefore they don't live in our district, and we don't have to educate them,' " Gordon says. "They see it as another burden until they get grant money to help them."

Kay Carpenter, a veteran Orange County schoolteacher, says she can't expect her four homeless seventh-graders at Lee Middle to cook their family's favorite recipe or build a science project because they can't afford the supplies.

"Believe it or not, the homeless children I teach are well-cared for, groomed and loved," says Carpenter, who usually has only one homeless child in class. "I'm amazed at how adjusted they seem to be, but you know their lives must be so stressful."

She tells the story of a seventh-grader she taught whose mom lobbied a local shelter for weeks to cut a check to send him on a field trip to Gatorland. On the day of the trip, the family moved.

"They don't have a lot of friends," says Carpenter, who never expects a homeless child to remain in her class for more than three months. "The families have to move on. It's their destiny."

Orange County's school system has a homeless coordinator in each school to find emergency shelter, provide clothes and supplies, and keep track of the population.

But Lake, Brevard, Osceola and Seminole counties don't keep tabs on the number of homeless children they serve.

Jay Marshall, director of student services for Lake County schools, says his district does not "knowingly have homeless children enrolled." Instead, Lake refers its homeless families to Anthony House, just across the Orange County line.

Brown, of the Coalition, disputes the contention that Lake schools serve no homeless children.

"They would be the only county in the country that doesn't have homeless children," Brown says. "Lake County doesn't provide services. So homeless children go where the services are, but that doesn't mean that they've solved the problem, or that they don't have a responsibility to prevent it."

Lynn Clifton, spokeswoman for Brevard schools, admits that her district's numbers are probably higher than they realize.

"Parents of students don't want to identify themselves as being homeless," Clifton says. "They don't want the stigma, and that means schools have a problem finding out who is homeless."

Although Seminole schools don't keep data, Sandra San Miguel, the district's lead social worker, says she has seen a dramatic increase in students living in motels or with relatives during the past year.

Volusia County is educating 134 homeless students this fall, and Polk County records show it has consistently enrolled about 300 homeless students since 1998.

A key reason that homelessness is on the rise among schoolchildren: Rents in Central Florida have climbed steadily in recent years, making it nearly impossible for poor families to find housing.

According to Gordon, of the Homeless Services Network, a Central Florida resident earning minimum wage -- $5.15 an hour -- must work 107 hours per week to afford a two-bedroom apartment at the market rate of $714 per month.

Put another way, a person would have to earn $13.73 an hour in a 40-hour-a-week job to afford that rent, if spending 30 percent of salary on rent, the federal standard.

A variety of social ills, such as domestic violence, substance abuse and grinding poverty, also contribute to the problem.

Overwhelmed school officials scramble daily to find temporary solutions to problems so that children don't drop out or have to switch schools. Teachers say they do simple things to help homeless children get through the day, such as providing clothes and referring them to social-service agencies.

"You can't judge them," says Anne Ferguson, who runs Volusia County's charter school for teen mothers. About one-third of her students are homeless.

"They have to grow to trust you and realize you are a safe person," she says. "If that happens, they're more apt to come to school the next day."

In some cases, children don't become homeless because of poverty.

Michele's husband used to play Russian roulette with her. He would tighten his left hand around the back of her neck and raise his pistol to her head.

Finally, she mustered the nerve to run away, waking her 7-year-old daughter at 4 a.m. and bundling up what few belongings she could carry.

During the past three years, the mother and daughter have hopped from homeless shelter to apartment to homeless shelter again, moving every time her husband finds them.

Michele, who asked that her last name not be used to protect her child, says her daughter's only saving grace has been her school.

"I'm going to push it as far as I can for my daughter to stay in the same school," she said. "It's the only stability we have."

Letitia Stein, Dave Weber, Leslie Postal and Denise-Marie Balona contributed to this report. Melissa Harris can be reached at 407-420-6269 or mharris@orlandosentinel.com.

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