Homelessness adds to students' hurdles and schools' burdens

In a cramped room with cinder-block walls, a linoleum floor, two bunk beds, a single dresser and a crib in the center of it all, 14-year-old Daniel King sat on the bottom of one bunk, leaning over a pre-algebra workbook.

It's the same room he has done homework in every night since school started -- in a homeless shelter where he lives with four other family members.

In the shelter, it's nearly impossible to bring friends over to study or play. And privacy? Forget it. Daniel can barely leave his room without supervision.

Still, he is determined to get straight A's in eighth grade this year. He insists he can -- even though his chances to study at a desk, much less a home, are remote.

In North Carolina, slightly more than 1 percent of all children in public schools, or about 17,000 students, were homeless at the end of the 2007-08 school year. School officials said that number is more than likely doubled now as the recession has made already unstable living conditions worse.

The state's unemployment rate is higher than the national average, and many of the jobless are having trouble holding on to their homes. Foreclosure filings are up across the state but particularly so in urban areas such as Durham and Wake counties.

Daniel's mom, Jennifer Hunt, 34, was a single parent in Michigan who worked as a medical assistant for years. She moved to Durham three years ago with $700 and enough money to rent a car. She thought she'd find a job right away but didn't. She remarried and had her third child less than a year ago.

The family survives on Medicaid, food stamps and the benefits Hunt receives after the death of her first husband. Her husband, Garrett Hunt, 59, is waiting for disability benefits. The family of five has bounced from shelter to hotel room and back as they wait for public-housing assistance.

"Sure, it would be nice to be in the same place," said Daniel, who wants to be either a doctor or cartoonist someday. "But I mean, I can't change where I am, and I don't mind it too much."

An obstacle to education

Daniel gets A's and B's in school, but he would be considered an exception, a triumph over adversity, by advocates for children who say that the instability that comes with homelessness can jeopardize education. Children who move often have a higher risk of dropping out, despite a federal mandate that says school districts must provide special services to homeless students.

"It can turn everything upside down for a child," said Barbara Duffield, policy director for the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth, an advocacy group in Washington, D.C. "This is where we see mental-health issues, kids not getting enough to eat and those who are losing attachments to people and places, especially school."

The McKinney-Vento Act, passed in 2001 as part of federal No Child Left Behind standards, requires every school district to have a liaison for homeless students, including those who are living in hotels and cars as well as the homes of relatives or friends.

The law states that homeless children must be provided with transportation and can stay in their school of origin -- even if they've had to move outside that school's area to find shelter.

"Even if everything else is falling apart, we want to at least maintain stability in the school environment," Duffield said.

Increasing numbers of students who qualify -- and advocates said numbers are underreported because many people do not realize they meet the definition -- mean an extra financial strain for budget-strapped school systems that must finance almost all support services on their own.

Daniel and his sister, Samantha Narrin, 12, were among 417 students from homeless families in Durham Public Schools in June, up from the previous year. Schools are only just re-starting their homeless schoolchildren counts, but most said they're seeing higher numbers. Numbers rise throughout the school year with a spike around the holidays. Once a student is recognized as homeless, he or she can receive services for the entire school year.

Current national data are not available, but the number of homeless schoolchildren nationwide may have risen by as much as 80 percent to 100 percent in the past two years to over a million, Duffield said.

Schools help homeless students with school supplies, personal hygiene products and bus passes so parents can attend teacher conferences, said Jerene Joseph, a social worker who works with homeless students in Durham Public Schools.

In a meeting with Durham school officials last month, community leaders expressed concern over the often-overlooked students.

"We do what we can to provide what the child needs," Joseph said. But first they have to find and keep track of the children. That can be difficult because families must either self-report, or a teacher must tell social workers. And a family's living situation can change rapidly.

School homeless liaisons travel in and outside of their counties to visit hotels and shelters to make sure students have the supplies they need. Melissa Brisbon-Obame, the homeless liaison for Wake County schools, said the district will accommodate any situation. If a family is living in a car, the school district will arrange for a bus to meet students at an agreed-upon spot.

The real challenge, she said, is getting these families to come forward.

"Unfortunately, there's a stigma attached here, and families don't want to be identified," said Brisbon-Obame, who said the school district puts up posters advertising services in bus stations where homeless families might notice. "It's much easier to connect with a homeless shelter."

At the Salvation Army's shelter in Raleigh, more than half of the 50 occupants are children, said director Christine Long. The waiting list of families who need shelter housing has grown from 20 to 30 three years ago to more than 80. Long said she has seen more families with parents who have college degrees needing a place to stay.

At Urban Ministries of Durham, the shelter where Daniel and Samantha live with their mother, stepfather and 10-month-old sister, Hadassah, there's room for nine families who can stay for 90 days. The shelter doesn't keep a waiting list, but family and housing case manager Mandy Sackreiter said lately she's turning away three to five families a day.

For the kids who do live in the shelter, Sackreiter said, life can be tough.

"It's really hard to live in a place where there are other people's rules," she said.

For Daniel, living in the shelter has been just OK. The family has had to switch rooms twice -- once because of ants. Daniel said he makes many friends, but then they move out. For a 14-year-old, it's no fun to have to be accompanied by a family member just to walk from the family's room to the shelter's courtyard to play basketball or ride a bike a few feet away.

"When you're raising kids, you want them to be in a good environment," said Hunt, Daniel's mother, who said she has been waiting for public housing since February. "But you also learn, and Daniel has learned, that you can make where you're staying home. It has its highs and lows, but what place doesn't?"

Daniel agreed. Still, as much as he loves his friends and teachers at Carrington Middle School, he doesn't tell many people there where he lives.

"I guess it's a little embarrassing," he said. "But if they asked, I would be honest and tell them."

The daily routine

Daniel and Samantha get up at 5:30 a.m. every day so they can get dressed in one of a handful of sets of clothes stacked on top of a bunk bed and maybe grab a bowl of Cap'n Crunch to eat before catching their bus at 6:30 a.m. to Carrington, eight miles away.

Mornings can be hard. The kids miss the shelter-wide breakfast at 8 a.m., and sometimes they miss free breakfast at the schools, too, because the bus will arrive too late. Hunt said she tries to keep snacks in the shared kitchen.

But it has been hard to stay healthy. Daniel has had to miss four days of school for illness already this year. He weighs about 266 pounds and says he gets teased sometimes.

"I am trying to get in shape," said Daniel, who loves basketball but wants to try out for the football team because of his size. "I don't really care what people think of me, but I know everyone talks about the obesity problem, and I want to be healthy."

Food stamps, Hunt said, are in short supply, and the limited funds don't cover the costs of many healthy foods. It's hard for Hunt to get to a grocery store. Instead, she handed Daniel and Samantha two Cokes and bags of potato chips from a convenience store as an after-school snack.

Daniel often speaks of his favorite teachers and classes like math and science at Carrington. He talks about friends at the lunch table.

"I don't care about being popular," he said. "If I have to do nothing schoolwork-wise to be popular, then forget it."

Daniel talks almost nonstop. He can't help it. His brown eyes widen, his hands and feet fidget, and then he just has to interrupt his mother to tell another animated story about something one of his teachers said.

He's a good kid, Hunt said, as Daniel picked up his baby sister, twirled her around and planted two big kisses on her cheeks.

Though it's four years away, Daniel has his sights on graduating high school -- and beyond.

"I want to go to UNC," he said, before pulling out his oversized, spiraled sketchbook. The pad is filled with drawings of athletes and pictures of his family in front of picturesque houses.

Stories in a looseleaf notebook feature characters like "Dillon," who is very similar to Daniel but lives in one big house with his family.

Daniel has never lived in a home like the ones he draws and writes about.

The family must leave the shelter at the end of November.

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