Children of God

The older kids led the way, younger siblings trailing in their wake, as they broke into a school. It wasn't a random act of vandalism. No graffiti was painted on the walls. Computers weren't hauled away, and the petty cash drawer was untouched.

"All they took was food," said Sheila Edwards, assistant principal at Grissom Elementary, a pre-K-to-fifth grade neighborhood facility off Post Oak plunked down in an area dominated by yards upon yards of metal shedding and nearby houses that can be carefully kept or ringed with garbage tossed out on the lawns.

Caught on videotape, the culprits were quickly identified. The break-in hadn't actually occurred at Grissom, but since some of the children went to Grissom and one was in fourth-grade teacher Sherri Norwood's class, Edwards and Norwood figured it was their business and went to the home to sort things out.

"We went to the house and, oh my goodness, it was bad," Edwards said. So she called the kids over and said: "Whatever you all took from the school, bring that stuff back here front and center."

They told her: "We were hungry." She asked a boy who was there what there was to eat. He told her there was a jug of water in the refrigerator. And other than a few packets of seasoning, he wasn't leaving anything out in his inventory. There was just a lone gallon jug of water.

"So Ms. Norwood and I started digging in our purses because we had to feed these children today. We knew there had to be something for the long term, but in the short term on the route back to school, we stopped at Popeyes and bought them a box of chicken and side orders." Back at the school, they put the kids around the table and ordered them to eat, setting aside some for their older sisters at another school.

Of the 800 kids at Grissom Elementary, 300 of them — or 37 percent — are classified as homeless (a number not reached until the end of the school year last year). And Grissom isn't unique or even the school with the most homeless in the Houston Independent School District — that distinction probably goes to Ruby Thompson, which is tied into the Star of Hope family shelter.

Homeless doesn't always mean kids are out on the street or living in a shelter. At Grissom, most have moved in with another family, whether friends or relatives — that's called "doubling up."

They can be classified as homeless while they're still in their houses or apartments but have no utilities because the family can't afford to pay for them. "You have the shell of the house, but you have no running water, no electricity; you're basically camping in the house," said Peter Messiah, head of the HISD Homeless Education Office.

Across the sprawling urban-suburban-rural district that is HISD, there are 3,000 kids identified as homeless, Messiah said. He predicts with confidence that actually there are a lot more with families too embarrassed to "self-identify," to say they have no place to call their own.

At schools with heavy percentages of homeless kids, problems and needs occur that aren't going to happen en masse at, say, a River Oaks or West U elementary.

Math specialist Paula Correa said it's not unusual for students to come to school and tell her: "My dad has just been deported. My mom has to go back to Mexico, but I'm born here and I want to stay here." In one case, the father had been deported twice, and the mother was left with seven children. Edwards put a note in teachers' boxes asking for donations, and when they took them over, "They acted as if we'd brought Jesus to the house."

Sometimes the nonacademic endeavors include combing out a girl's hair in the morning when a depressed parent has abandoned the task or whisking someone off to the restroom for a quick scrub when personal hygiene has lapsed. A kid who shows up in shorts on a freezing day is taken to the counselor's office, where Deborah Coleman dips into her closet and comes out with something warm.

"We have extra coats. We have extra food. We do a lot of work with the whole child and not just the classroom piece of the child," said Principal Cynthia Smith.

They even teach elementary-age kids how to wash their own clothes in the sink at night.

"We tell them, 'Your mom might not be able to wash your clothes, but you can. Put it in the sink and wash it out, rinse it out,'" third-grade teacher Tareese Glover said.

Smith explained: "Sometimes they don't have washers at the house. They might have only one shirt. So we tell them, 'Even if you don't wash the whole thing out, put it under the water and wash under the arms.'"

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Margaret Downing is the editor-in-chief who oversees the Houston Press newsroom and its online publication. She frequently writes on a wide range of subjects.
Contact: Margaret Downing