Learning with less
Local groups are working to identify and help continue the education of homeless children
Thu, Feb 12, 2009 (midnight)
Through it all, there is math. 4 x 1 = 4. 4 x 0 = 0. He’s good at math. He’s a smart boy; he got straight A’s last year. Dallas Galdones DePonte is 8; he’s in second grade. Five is the number of months since his dad, Richard Galdones, lost his job as a warehouse worker. Three is the number of places his family has stayed since then. Two is an underestimate of the weeks of school he’s missed, as it’s difficult to get there when you’re selling your things and moving to a weekly hotel. Forty is how many dollars his parents got for his Playstation 2 system with Guitar Hero before landing here, at Family Promise homeless outreach program.
Dallas is restless the way that little boys are, sitting on the sofa in the office/day center for homeless families, wiggling and bouncing and looking about the room for whatever’s next. Soon he pounces on a set of markers and starts to draw while the three other members of his family—Mom, Dad and sister Tiara, 10—sit in a warm living room. There are no beds here—this place is for days—but the program hooks them up with churches, mosques and synagogues to spend the nights on air mattresses. Still, this Downtown home base is a relief: 1 kitchen + 1 TV + 1 giant teddy bear = not bad. There’s a bathroom with a shower, and each of four families has its own locker. During most days, however, Dallas is back in school—one of 4,317 K-12 children in the Clark County School District who are homeless.
That number is up 35 percent over this time last year.
“I would say it’s foreclosures and people who were renting and foreclosed upon. Evictions. People losing their jobs. And abuse—that never goes away,” says Myra Berkovitz, who runs Title One Homeless Outreach Programs Education (HOPE), CCSD’s arm for homeless students. Title One HOPE provides students with backpacks, school supplies, bus tokens or transportation and outreach information, as well as free breakfast and lunch at school. “We’re seeing more families who have never been in this situation. Every two months we have a meeting with shelter providers, [and] the shelters are crowded. A family can be fragmented in a really short time,” Berkovitz says.
Although every school has a staffer deemed homeless advocate, homeless kids become known to the schools in a variety of ways.
“Many times, a parent will come in and say, ‘This is the situation.’ Or sometimes a child shares with a teacher or counselor. And teachers are trained to know the characteristics of homelessness: hair is funky, clothes are ill-fitting or inappropriate for the season. We make sure staff is aware,” Berkovitz says. “We do a service assessment, confidentially, with the child. Are they eating on weekends? Do they have enough clothing?”
From there her team works with shelter and outreach programs in Clark County to help the child and family.
“We rely tremendously on community partnerships. We have one group who helped us put clothes closets into six high schools. We’re starting a pilot project after school to start getting a group of students into the room, confidentially, to get clothing, underwear, socks, gift cards, and use a computer. It will be at an undisclosed high school, and it will start with kids from that high school. But then if that model works we will move it to other schools,” Berkovitz says. Students are considered homeless by the district if they live in shelters, hotels/motels, multifamily situations because of financial hardship, cars, parks, tents or RVs that must be plugged in, or if they’re awaiting foster care. In Dallas’ and Tiara’s case, mom Leeanda told a school counselor at Halle Heweston Elementary about their financial problems.
“I was crying. I said I couldn’t let the kids end up on the street,” Leeanda says.
So this week, Dallas is sleeping in a room at a church on Maryland Parkway with his mom and dad and Tiara, all in one private room. 4 x 1 = 4. Other families are in their own rooms down the hall. This is how it works: The faith community provides dinner and space for them to sleep, and Family Promise, a nationwide nonprofit organization, picks them up at 7 a.m. to take them to school and work or back to the day center. There are 21 faith houses working with the local Family Promise program; each keeps the families for seven nights at a time, and then it’s on the next house of worship. Religion is not mentioned on these nights—it’s just about shelter, about caring for the practical needs of families.
“Our goal is to provide service with dignity,” says Executive Director Terry Lindemann, who has been at this for more than 10 years. “We refer to our clients as guests. We have four families right now; they stay about 45 to 90 days. During that process we work with them to find an apartment they can afford.”
But this is one of few shelters that allows families to stay intact—many homeless shelters separate men and women, which means the Galdones DePonte family would’ve been split down the middle and sent to different places to sleep in different environments.
“Homelessness is like a nation—there are all different cultures in there, and some of those may scare children or be inappropriate for children,” Lindemann says. “We bring people in to interview them. We take the neediest case that qualifies. Our program does not provide services to people with an active addiction. They are drug tested and background-checked. If they screen positive, there are other groups who will help them, so it’s not to say they won’t get help, they can get help, but we provide a specific type of environment.”
In the Downtown day center, great effort was made to make the place homey: There are ornamental “Welcome” signs hanging on the living-room wall, and tchotchkes abound; there’s a beautifully remodeled kitchen that families can use, and toys. There’s also computer access for the parents to apply online for jobs, and a telephone at which they can receive job callbacks.
But it’s a program that demands following guidelines.
“We are looking for two families now, and we’ve done two weeks’ worth of interviews, and they’ve all tested positive for drugs. We think it’s because people are getting their tax returns,” Lindemann says.
Homework—which assumes you have a home—happens four nights a week now for Dallas and Tiara. “Math is my favorite subject,” Dallas says when he brings his completed drawing into the Family Promise center living room. Art and math are related in this way: There’s something perfect in both. Dallas has drawn a picture of a house with a chimney and two children playing in the front yard; one is jumping rope. It is his house. One simple home; not multiple homes. 1 x 1 = 1.
Though their grades plummeted last semester, things are looking up for Dallas and Tiara.
The family, originally from Hawaii, has lived in Vegas for five years. After losing their income and apartment, they went to a weekly hotel for three weeks. Then they applied at other shelters, which were full, Leeanda says. “You never imagine getting into this situation. You never imagine needing this help.”
With guidance from Family Promise advocates, the family is developing a plan to get affordable housing. Leeanda has secured a part-time job; Richard has applied at casinos and staffing agencies and is still on the hunt.
They’re relieved the family is together, they have shelter, and the kids are in school. “This program has saved us,” Leeanda says. “I never, ever want to be back in that situation again. I want my kids to have an education; education is very important to me. I never want them to go hungry. I want to be able to tell my kids, ‘You are safe.’”
Solve: If Dallas’ dad applies for three jobs today and his mother works four hours as a telemarketer, and Congress gives $700 billion to the national bailout plan, how long will it be until Dallas has a steady roof over his head?