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What happens when a student has no place like home?

Homeless students create a new challenge for school officials and social workers

POSTED: January 16, 2010 11:59 p.m.
SARA GUEVARA/The Times

Anthony Davis must come up with $400 to pay for a motel room by Saturday or he and his wife and two children will be forced to live on the streets. The family has been living in an apartment at the Salvation Army in Gainesville for three months.

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In the still of the night, Anthony Davis often finds himself staring at the ceiling of his family’s temporary apartment at the Salvation Army in Gainesville.

His 11-year-old daughter and 12-year-old son sleep soundly in their warm beds. His wife, Rebecca, rests beside him on the lumpy sleeper sofa.

In the hallway, the Salvation Army lodge manager’s parakeets are covered in their cage for the night. Their cheerful chirping has subsided.

Davis and his wife have been living in the shelter for nearly three months and are facing their 90-day stay limit. They have until Saturday to find a new place to lay their heads so another family can move into the shelter.

If the parents can scrape together $400, they can move the family into a motel for a month while seeking a more permanent solution, said Davis, who suffers from pancreatic and heart problems and has been out of work for a year.

“I’ve got a lot of stress on me trying to find a place,” he said. “I get to worrying where we’re going to wind up at. Our time is up next week, on the 23rd. I’ve got to figure out where we’re going to stay.”

Davis said his disability check, his primary income, will arrive Jan. 26, three days too late.

The Davis family is one of at least 100 homeless families with kids in Gainesville or Hall County schools.

In 2008, when the districts had enough funding to share a full-time homeless coordinator, more than 200 students in the two districts were identified as homeless, social workers said.

Gainesville schools social worker Jarod Anderson said since the full-time homeless coordinator position was cut, social workers have shared the position required by federal law.

So far this school year, only 74 Hall County students and about 25 Gainesville students have been identified as homeless. But Gainesville social worker Barbara Brooks believes the actual number to be much higher.

“It would probably be three or four times more than that if we really knew,” she said.

Families with children are by most accounts among the fastest growing segments of the homeless population, according to the National Coalition for the Homeless.

Anderson said many homeless parents and students try to hide their troubling financial situation, challenging school staff to identify homeless students. Once they are identified, schools can provide kids with food and clothing, and provide parents with resources to find a job and a stable home.

“The teachers are the front lines,” he said. “There’s usually some type of sign — poor performance, sleeping in class, personal hygiene. ... But a lot of them come in and function with the best of them. You wouldn’t be able to tell.”

What does homelessness look like?
There are many faces of homelessness, and few match the stereotype of bearded panhandlers. Local school social workers report the vast majority of homeless students are “doubling up” and staying with family members or friends. Some stay in shelters, while a few live in motels or go without shelter.

“Some people by definition are homeless and they don’t even know it,” Anderson said.

Brooks said while homeless children always have been an issue in Gainesville, child homelessness is becoming more apparent.

“I think our schools may not have understood until now what homelessness really looks like and how broad that range is,” she said.

Salvation Army Capt. Jessica Williams said there are typically at least 15 children living in the Gainesville shelter’s six family apartments. A handful are school-aged and catch the bus to school each morning when it stops in front of the shelter, she said.

Hall County schools social worker and homeless liaison Dania Peguero said she is seeing a shift in the homeless population because of the economy. Before the recession, homeless cases were contained to certain neighborhoods, but that is no longer the case, she said.

The problem affects the young, the old, men, women, whites, blacks and Hispanics, social workers said.

Gainesville schools social worker Joyce Rucker said she is seeing homeless families who have lost jobs, collected unemployment and qualified for food stamps for the first time.

Sylvia Stoltzfus, executive director of My Sister’s Place, said the small Gainesville shelter has been overwhelmed by homeless families. Every month, the women and children’s shelter has turned away more than 100 people, many of them children, she said.
Stoltzfus said the agency has been serving some families in dire straits. She said the nonprofit recently served a family who had been living in a tent in the woods with two young children.

She said the shelter also has been housing families longer than the standard 90 days because of the poor job market.

“We never used to turn over 100 away,” she said. “... The way the economy is right now, it’s just not as easy to find a job, save a little money and put a deposit on an apartment.”

Rucker said the reasons for becoming homeless range from job loss or substance abuse to illness or fleeing domestic violence. Yet the process of homelessness often is the same.

“Usually the first thing that goes is the power,” Rucker said. “The power gets shut off.”

Many apartments require operating utilities for tenants to stay. Evictions often follow power loss, she said.

Peguero said at least three families this school year have told her they can afford monthly rent for an apartment, but like the Davis family, they cannot find money for a deposit.

Davis does not have a high school diploma. He said because of his illness and his inability to find landscaping or remodeling work, his family moved last year from their house in Barrow County to a three-bedroom trailer in Hall County. His wife, a high school graduate, has been unable to find work for months, she said.

“I’ve been out looking and putting out applications but they always say, ‘We’re not hiring right now. Try back later,’” Rebecca Davis said. “And then I’ve been home taking care of (my husband) and trying to make sure everybody has good food to eat.”

When the Department of Family and Children Services deemed their trailer unfit for children, the Davis family found themselves with nowhere to go but the Salvation Army.

“Friends of ours told us about this place and we came up here to see about staying here for a couple of weeks,” Rebecca Davis said. “It turned out to be longer than that.”

Schools a lifeline for survival
School often is one of the few stable, secure places in the lives of homeless children. It is a place where they can acquire the skills needed to help them, and their families, escape poverty.

“We have a lot of families who the first place they turn to for help is the school,” Rucker said.

Because homeless children often have problems enrolling and participating in school, Congress passed the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act in 1987. The law gives homeless children the right to remain in the same school even if they move, as well as the right to get transportation to school and all services needed to support their education.

Local school social workers go beyond the basics of the federal law and try to connect families with various community resources and nonprofit agencies like Ninth District Opportunity, where they can receive help paying for utilities and rent.

Social workers also have provided parents transportation to interviews with nonprofits and helped families obtain furniture for apartments.

Rebecca Davis, whose children attend Hall middle and elementary schools, said the schools have been generous.

“Schools have helped out a lot with food and clothes and with the kids’ Christmas this year,” she said. “And they give the kids counseling when they need it to help them deal with Tony’s illness.”

Rucker said social workers rely on community resources to provide for families.

“With the economy, it’s getting more difficult now,” she said. “We’ll try anything. We’ll call anyone.”

James King, a community resource coordinator for Ninth District Opportunity, began managing the 13-county agency’s Homeless Prevention and Rapid Rehousing program in October. Since the federally funded program opened in November, King said it has helped 20 homeless families pay rent and utilities while they find jobs and regain financial footing.

King said schools and churches have referred many families to the program, which gives priority to homeless families with children.
“We’re always trying to get the family completely together in a new location. They need a stable environment,” he said. “That’s especially hard on children, especially younger children, because they don’t know what’s going on.”

Barriers to an education
Though 87 percent of homeless children are enrolled in school, only 77 percent attend school regularly, the U.S. Department of Education reports.

Anderson said he occasionally finds unaccompanied youth at Gainesville High whose parents have been deported as illegal immigrants. The youngsters often find shelter with other family members; some drop out of school and begin working to contribute to family bills, he said.

Peguero said since living arrangements for homeless children often are highly improvisational, children may transfer schools multiple times in a school year as their parents seek housing. She said she has been working with a group of homeless siblings who have been in four different elementary schools since August.

Peguero said constant relocation hurts kids socially and academically.

“They’re not able to make friends. It does affect their social skills and their sense of security and stability,” she said. “Some of them have behavior problems, and some of them have adjusted.”

According to the Institute for Children and Poverty, homeless children are nine times more likely to repeat a grade, four times more likely to drop out of school, and three times more likely to be placed in special education programs than their peers with stable homes.

Yet some homeless children cling to their school work as a constant, and understand it is their ticket to self-sufficiency.

“There are those who compartmentalize and keep up with their academics, because that’s the only thing they can control,” Anderson said.

Peguero said she has met one homeless Hall County high school senior on track to graduate in May.

Williams said she believes a lack of education is the reason why many jobless parents come to the Salvation Army shelter.

“The economy is changing,” she said. “Jobs want people that have extra education and their high school diploma.”

Anthony Davis said he knows what it means not to have a high school diploma, and he hopes his children will make a better life for themselves. His daughter wants to become a teacher. His son hopes to become a scientist.

“I never finished school,” he said. “I want my kids to finish what I didn’t.”

Help is on the way
As more jobs are lost and more families become homeless, Hall County residents are trying to pool resources to create more temporary housing for parents seeking work.

The Kiwanis Club of Gainesville plans to build a four-unit Kiwanis Hope Village on the corner of Dixie and High streets in Gainesville.

The civic club has partnered with the HOPE Program, a joint effort that serves homeless children in Gainesville and Hall County schools, to select which families will live in the Kiwanis Hope Village.

Kiwanis members aim to build and maintain the village entirely through private donations.

My Sister’s Place is in the final stages of purchasing a five-apartment complex near the Boys and Girls Club in Gainesville, Stoltzfus said. The shelter currently operates from a three-bedroom house, but needs additional room to accommodate more families.

“So many of the people that we serve are children,” Stoltzfus said. “And children need more space. We need more space to function as a family and have our meals together and have everybody together in one room for devotion. It’s critical to the healing process.”

Until more shelters open, many families like the Davises are living on hope and prayer.

Below the Davis family’s Salvation Army apartment, a Bible rests against a pillow on a tidy bed in the men’s shelter downstairs.

Its pages are open to chapter 2 of Kings 2: “Thus saith the Lord, the God of David thy father, I have heard thy prayer, I have seen thy tears: behold, I will heal thee: on the third day thou shalt go up unto the house of the Lord.”



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