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When children have no home

Ohanian Comment: The
article ends with a rhetorical question: "How
do you stop the cycle? One kid at a time."

No, you end it by providing living wages to
families. Even with that, some families will
need help, but there is no hope of stopping
this viciousness without a living wage.

That said, hats are off to people who do this
difficult work. The CEOs of all these firms
getting the payoffs should walk in their shoes
for one day.


by Sue White

Graduation day drew close, but the teen from
Alma couldn't take it anymore.

Her home was an abusive one, recalled Claudia
J. Wallace, and she headed for the safe haven
of Saginaw's Innerlink Runaway and Homeless
Youth Shelter.

But when it came to getting her degree, "she
was motivated," said the coordinator with the
McKinney-Vento Homeless Education Program, "and
we were going to make it happen. We got what we
needed for her to get her last two credits, and
when the time came, she graduated with her
class."

Those are moments Wallace treasures -- "They
warm my heart," she says -- but they don't come
often enough for the legion of folks determined
to keep youngsters from slipping through the
cracks.

The terrifying truth, said Barbara J. Duffield,
policy director for the Washington D.C.-based
National Association for the Education of
Homeless Children and Youth, is that 688,174
American children were homeless in the 2006-
2007 school year, and early returns from states
on this year's first quarter -- two years later
-- say the problem has doubled.

"Macomb County told us they had 190 homeless
students, compared to 109 at the same time last
year," Duffield, a Michigan native, said.
"Florida has a 59 percent increase. Las Vegas
numbers are twice as high. The increases are
unprecedented, and it's not just in high-
foreclosure areas, either."

McKinney-Vento appropriates $64 million in
national funding, she said, and when Congress
returns for its lame-duck session, there is
hope that the economic stimulus package
containing added provisions will pass. They
initially asked for another $36 million but
raised it to $72 million when the new numbers
came in.

"Schools are these children's connection to
stability; it's their safety net," she said.

Across the state, 21,142 homeless children came
under wing during the past school year, more
than two-thirds of them 10 and younger. The
goal, said Sam Sinicropi, Michigan's homeless
education coordinator, is seamless transition,
which might call from something as basic as
clothes and school supplies purchased with the
$2.4 million distributed through 31 McKinney-
Vento grants and 10 minigrants.

"I've been visiting the shelters, monitoring
the grants, and I can tell you that this isn't
the guy living under the bridge," Sinicropi
said. "It's unbelievable what I'm seeing
everywhere from Alpena to Macomb County.

"We know there are many others, too, who don't
take advantage of the services we offer and
aren't included in the count. They qualify, but
they don't want the stigma of being homeless.
It's different in this economy, the safety nets
are not around like they were, and there's no
room for pride. It could be me or you next, the
way things turn around these days."

Wallace, working with Saginaw County's school
districts and shelters on a $49,647 grant
administered through Carrollton Public Schools,
helped 320 homeless children continue their
educations in the 2007-2008 school year.
Homeless Management Information Systems
recorded more than 550 children in its service
area through the year, which includes the
unsheltered.

"We get a lot done for little money," Wallace
said.

Meeting the students' educational needs isn't
just the right thing to do; it's the law,
reaffirmed in January 2002 as part of the No
Child Left Behind Act. The McKinney-Vento
Homeless Assistance Act defines "homeless
children and youth" as
individuals who lack a fixed, regular and
adequate nighttime residence. That includes
families living in motels, on a friend's couch,
in their car, in a tent at a campground or
sitting out the night at 24-hour supermarts.

No matter where you find them, the act
guarantees equal access to a full education and
everything that goes along with it. From meals
to athletic events, it comes together with the
help of the homeless liaison each school
district must provide, said Billy J. Erwin,
director of student support services and
athletics for the Saginaw City School District.

"We have a lot of support, including social
workers and school psychologists, to meet any
needs they might have," Erwin said. "We realize
they might have issues that affect their
behavior and we address those things as we
outline our plan."

Academics are important, he added, but so is
emotional stability. Schools assemble a People
Service Team, with parents, teachers and social
workers, for a seamless transition. And if
other problems arise, such as truancy, there
are more resources at schools' disposal, he
said.

"It's not always easy to identify our homeless
students," Erwin said, "and then we may find
out they're dealing with a divorce or parents
with substance abuse problems. We try to
stabilize their lives and run intervention when
necessary."

And some families aren't quick to come forward
for help, Duffield pointed out.

"I've seen campaigns now that say 'If you've
gone through foreclosure, your children may
have these rights,' without mentioning
homelessness at all," she said. "We're also
working with schools, training not just
teachers and principals but bus drivers and
cafeteria workers to be our eyes and ears,
identifying students wearing the same clothes
three days in a row or always falling asleep or
hoarding food.

"Our hope in all this is the resilience of
kids, but when you rob them of the stability
they need to grow strong, well, it's scary to
think where that can lead. It's about
education, yes, but it's also about surrounding
them with caring people when others aren't in a
position to meet their needs."

The biggest need is to get them back in school,
and quickly, said Valerie A. Hoffman, president
and chief executive officer of the Underground
Railroad, at Atwater and South Washington.

"Beyond the academics, there's the normalcy of
the situation, the expectations that move them
forward, just being with others and learning
from each other," she said. "For certain things
to happen, for them to feel secure, they need
the structure school brings. They need the
reassurance of finding that things they knew
still exist. And, of course, being with all
their friends is very healthy."

It helps, she said, that families can stay for
90 days at the Underground Railroad, rather
than 30 days at the City Rescue Mission at Burt
and East Genesee or 14 days at Innerlink, at
McCoskry and Howard.

Battered women often are fiercely protective of
their children, but Hoffman finds that many put
off leaving a hostile situation so they won't
interrupt their children's education.

"We can transport them to their school; we can
re-establish them in a new school if safety is
an issue. While we recognize and appreciate
their feelings, we have the resources in place
to make sure the schooling continues."

Wallace, 55, begins her day at Underground
Railroad, meeting with resident youth advocate
Jean Burk and catching up with families who
came in through the night.

Later, she's off to Innerlink Runaway and
Homeless Youth Shelter -- "My favorite," she
says -- to see who's filling its 16 beds, and
how many can't attend their home schools for
one reason or another. She's a familiar face at
the City Rescue Mission as well.

"We're seeing many more suspensions this year -
- new administrations are in place and they're
not taking any guff -- but that doesn't mean
school is out when you're living here," she
said.

When it comes to understanding life in the
trenches, few can match Wallace. She knows the
woman who for 20 years has fed body and soul at
Innerlink. She pulls people such as tutors
Susie D. Farr and Cheldora L. Haynes into the
mix for onsite instruction. She even drives the
van that transports kids to schools outside the
bus route, dropping them off a few blocks away
so they don't stand out in the crowd.

"But you know I park where I can see the
entrance, to be sure they make it through the
door," she said.

Changes have come around in the seven years
she's spent on the job. Once, it took at least
three days to get children registered and ready
to begin school; now, with McKinney-Vento,
they're immediately in the classroom, with meal
vouchers in place and a desk with their name on
it.

But providing uniforms, transportation and a
teddy bear for support is easy compared to what
comes next, she added.

"The biggest difference I can see is that we
have more disabilities, mental and academic,
which calls for special education," Wallace
said. "Maybe we were slower diagnosing it
before; maybe, like everything else, we're
noticing it more now."

That narrows the available classrooms but does
provide for mandatory instruction. Schools can
not suspend students with special needs.

The biggest challenge today, Wallace said, is a
mindset of hopelessness developed through
generations, one that doesn't allow students to
recognize their options or believe that they
can move beyond their circumstances. You see it
in the number of repeats, especially among
unaccompanied youth at Innerlink, she said,
where they look to the shelter as a safe, yet
temporary, haven.

It's not a perfect system, she said, citing the
example of a young man who earlier two weeks
ago jumped right into school, on the first day
of the Michigan Educational Assessment Program
tests.

"Six years ago, he left here for Detroit, and
then he moved to North Carolina and now he's
back here, and in special education," Wallace
said. "How in the world are they going to get
an honest assessment? How many different school
systems has he been through? Who exactly are
you going to blame for what he doesn't know?"

But he has a safe haven, a security blanket,
the one constant in youngsters' lives where
they can depend on breakfast, lunch and
afterschool snack.

"As adults, we learned somewhere along the line
that no matter how hard things are, we have to
get up and brush our teeth and go to work,"
Wallace said. "That's the way life goes."

The lessons hit home on occasion. Wallace
remembered another graduate of Innerlink's
transition program who came back to say he was
married, had a 7-year-old son and owned his own
business.

"He said he had a rough road, but we were
caring here when he needed that," Wallace said.
"I have empathy for these kids. They have a lot
of disconnects when it comes to living in the
real world, when they're taken out of their
environment.

"It warms your heart when you see things work
out for them."

And when you see the repeats, the kids coming
back, the mindset taking hold, those success
stories carry you through another day.

"I don't love the frustration, but I love my
job and if I just touch one kid somewhere
along the line. ..." Wallace said. "How do you
stop the cycle? One kid at a time."

— Sue White
The Saginaw News
2008-10-26
http://www.mlive.com/saginawnews/news/index.ssf/2008/10/when_children_have_no_home.html


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