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Metro Detroit schools coping with surge of homeless children

Ohanian Comment: Read this piece in tandem with the solution offered by the editorial page editor. More students than ever can't go home. Because there isn't one. But he blames the teachers.

How can we allow such outrage in our wealthy country? This is not a rhetorical question. The plight of these families cuts to the core.

Karen Bouffard

DETROIT -- Cherish Brisbane loved Gompers Elementary School, where she was friends with girls named Tyler, Casey and Amanda. Now she's trying to find friends at Owen Academy, her new school near the homeless shelter in Highland Park that she now calls home.

"I miss my school, and that was a good house. Plus I miss my dog, Precious. We had to give her away to somebody," said Cherish, a pretty girl with her hair pulled into a puff on top of her head. "The hardest part was I lost all my best friends."

The 8-year-old is one of a growing number of homeless children attending schools throughout Metro Detroit, where the number of children known to have no fixed address has shot up by more than 70 percent in the last three years. Cherish has lived in two shelters since her family was evicted from their Detroit home in November.

The state Department of Education estimates it's serving about 20,000 homeless students statewide, including 3,540 in Detroit alone.

And those are just the children they know about.

Experts say many parents are too embarrassed to admit they are homeless, or are afraid to ask for help out of fear their children will be taken away and placed in foster care. According to Maureen Sorbet, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Human Services, homelessness that is solely attributable to poverty is not considered child neglect.

Even so, nobody at school knows Cherish lives in a shelter, not even her teacher.

"My mommy told me not to tell anybody, because it's just my business," she said.
School districts struggle

The problem is mushrooming as more Michigan families face joblessness, home foreclosures and other effects of the state's dour economy. And homelessness shakes the very foundations of childhood, making it hard for kids to stay in school and interrupting their social, emotional and academic development, experts say.

Homelessness also impacts school districts struggling to make ends meet, because federal law requires schools to assist homeless children, which includes those doubling up with relatives, living in homeless shelters or staying in cars on the street. The federal government reimburses some costs, like backpacks and school supplies, but other mandates, like transportation, are unfunded.

Susan Benson, director of homeless programs for the Oakland County Intermediate School District, estimates there could be as many as 5,000 homeless children in Oakland County, although only about 1,500 will seek services through the ISD's homeless program this year.

"We have people in cars, in motels, in campgrounds, doubled up with relatives, or even in garages or other people's basements," Benson said.

The number of Oakland County schoolchildren seeking services grew from 235 in 2002-03 to 1,273 last school year. In suburban Wayne County, excluding Detroit, the number grew from 202 to 811 over the same time frame. The Macomb County ISD served 316 in 2002-03, compared with 407 last school year.

"We really have to push ourselves to understand that this is a problem that is not coming; it's here," Benson said.

Many homeless families go to great lengths to keep their kids in school. For teenagers, the choice often is between dropping out and expending extraordinary effort to stay in school.

"These parents do care about their kids, and that doesn't always come across," said Phyllis White, supervisor of the Detroit Public Schools' homeless program, which has already served 3,540 students this school year. The total for all of last school year was 3,500.
Four hours on the bus daily

Jermaine Mathews plays drums in the Pontiac Central High School marching band and dreams of attending college to become a band director. He's a typical teen in many ways, except he's one of about 60 schoolchildren living at the Doorstep homeless shelter in Highland Park.

Mathews, 18, rises at 4 a.m. each day to prepare for the two-hour bus ride to school. He has maintained a B average though he doesn't even have a place to do homework in the small room he shares with his mother and five siblings. "Here (in the shelter) it's a lot of arguing, people getting into fights, and I'll sit in my room and try to study," he said. "With the proms and the parties, I haven't had a chance to party at all; I stay here because I don't want to be the one out partying when my family's staying in a shelter." Children feel the shame of homelessness deeply, according to Carl Taylor, a sociology professor at Michigan State University who has spent more than 20 years studying children in urban communities.

"Most of these children are living moment to moment -- the whole family is -- and it's very tough for them," Taylor said. "For a student in school, when you say, 'I'm going home,' you have no home. It gets some kids off track, because they just can't handle the ordeal of homelessness.

"If you don't have a home, you don't feel 'part of' -- you have no sense of belonging," Taylor added. Mathews' siblings decided to switch to Detroit schools when they moved into the shelter, but he would rather spend four hours on the bus each day than give up marching band and his friends at Pontiac Central.

He goes to the public library in Pontiac on his way home from school most days. He studies, and gets college applications off the Internet, though he wonders how he'll pay the application fees.

Teens at the shelter are required to go to bed at 8 p.m., and there's no place to sit around or watch TV. So he focuses on school and tries to make his mom feel better.

"I try to uplift my mother's spirits, because I don't want her to feel bad. I make her laugh."
Looking for a new start

The 200-bed Doorstep shelter stands in the shadows of a burned-down apartment building at the bottom of a dead-end street. About 60 school-age children live here on a typical day; most attend Detroit Public Schools.

During the day, homeless people line up outside the locked front door, hoping for a place inside.

Those lucky enough to get in live in small rooms along long, shadowy corridors on two floors upstairs. There are community showers, and hall monitors enforce a long list of rules.

The room Cherish lives in has a bed for her mother, and bunk beds for Cherish and her 7-year-old brother, DeVaughn Davis, a first-grader at Owen.

There is no other furniture -- not a chair to sit in, not a single picture hanging on the white walls.

Cherish pulls a tote bag from under the bunk bed that contains the children's toys: a doll, doll clothes and two teddy bears for Cherish; binoculars, a plastic dinosaur, an action figure, a little truck and a big white teddy bear for DeVaughn. There are some markers and crayons.

"I always do my homework," Cherish said. "I sit on the bed, and I put the paper on my notebook so my pen doesn't poke through the mattress."

Cassandra Davis, Cherish's mother, said she spends every day looking for a job and housing.

The family lives on $480 per month in public assistance, plus $300 in food stamps. She's trying to save up for a deposit on an apartment.

"There are places for like $350 with everything included but the lights, but you have to get out there and really look for it," Davis said.

"As long as I get up every day and take them to school and do what I can to find a job, I try not to stress out. I know it's going to work out."

Homeless children often are uprooted again and again as their parents seek shelter on relatives' couches, or at shelters that typically allow them to stay for only 90 days.

Cherish's family can stay at Doorstep for about four more weeks.

If her mother doesn't find a place by then, they will have to move on. That could mean another new school for Cherish and DeVaughn.

— Karen Bouffard
Detroit News





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