By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
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"You're still a prince; you're still a princess; you're still a child of God. And we still love you, and you can learn no matter what your situation is. And we try to instill that in our babies every day."
Homeless kids tend to move around a lot, either because they or their families have falling-outs with their host families, or the places they're living become just too unbearable. It's the kind of constant turmoil that makes staying focused in school difficult.
There are more and more homeless kids in the Houston Independent School District, in part because HISD is doing a better job of identifying them, but also because for their families, the recession hasn't gone away, Messiah said.
He sends out members of his six-person staff to educate teachers, administrators and front-desk personnel about what to look for and how to help, and he hopes the message will be passed on and spread like wildfire.
That's because when the two-year federal stimulus money runs out, his six-person office will drop back to one (him). And because: "It's not going away. Unfortunately for some kids, it becomes a way of life for them and their families."
In addition to the stimulus money, Messiah has a regular budget of $180,000 a year, as well as some Title I funding for at-risk kids — to provide emergency clothing, toiletries and Metro passes for bus rides. That doesn't go far in a district as large as HISD. "We try to make their life in the school setting as safe as possible. At least in the educational setting, they have some stability."
But even now, the system depends on help from volunteers.
Every Friday, people from the Southside Church of God travel to the Houston Food Bank to pick up food in what are called "backpack buddies" that will get kids at Grissom through the weekend. Grissom counselor Coleman oversees this program, as well as distributing jackets, other clothing and toiletries from her brightly colored office. Two other small churches donate school supplies and clothing.
Coleman counsels children when they ask her to, when their parents call her or when teachers spot something going wrong, like dropped grades or a kid who's always trying to cadge food from his friends. Homeless kids have the same problems as other kids — grief and divorce, for instance; their lower socioeconomic level just means it happens more often, she said.
Homeless kids at the elementary level have a different set of problems than teens, who are more independent and sometimes have a different set of reasons for leaving the home — maybe they've "come out" to disapproving parents or they're fleeing perceived or real domestic abuse, Messiah said. In Houston, that's especially tough because this area doesn't have a shelter that opens its doors to anyone under 18 unless a parent checks him in, he said. For every "sofa surfer" who digs down deep and excels at school, seeing it as a way out of the situation he's in, others turn to the sex trade business or crime just to supply basic shelter, food and clothing needs, Messiah said.
At Grissom, transportation is a big and recurring problem, Smith said. If students live within a two-mile radius and have to walk to school and it's a cold or rainy day, they may not make it, she said. "It's difficult for parents to get them here if they don't have transportation," she said.
The federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, which put an end to setting aside separate schools for homeless children across the country, calls for school districts to provide transportation for these kids. That is more difficult with the youngest students, Messiah said.
"With the elementary students, it's pretty tough, because they can't get on a [Metro] bus by themselves," Messiah said. "It's an additional cost because you need to get a bus pass for the parent themselves to go back and forth."
There is no homeless list at Grissom, Principal Smith stresses. "We just discover need as need arises." And sometimes that takes some doing, because kids who are homeless don't always appear to be in need on the surface.
"You see Timmy who is homeless getting out of this nice car and you think, 'Oh, Timmy's okay,' but it's the host family's car," Messiah said. "You get caught up looking at the physical trappings."
And the school district works hard to make sure kids aren't singled out to their peers. When backpacks are handed out, no one can tell which ones have school uniforms inside, he said.
At Grissom, teachers are expected to stay in contact with their students on a daily basis and to call their homes when they don't show up for school. If it isn't illness that's keeping a kid away, counselor Coleman gets involved, Smith said. Home visits are not uncommon. Attendance is up this year, she said, so they think their methods are working.
Smith insists her teachers be "firm, fair and consistent" with their charges, and insists that their students should be held up to high academic standards. "We're educating the future presidents, the future world leaders here." There isn't a trace of sarcasm in her statement.