Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Too Small to Fail--The Crisis of Homeless Schoolchildren by Arianna Huffington

I was scheduled to give a speech at the Get Schooled conference on education reform yesterday, sponsored by the Gates Foundation and Viacom. My speech had been perfectly trimmed to fit the allotted time, and already loaded in the teleprompter.

Then I read Erik Eckholm's moving story in the New York Times on the surge of homeless schoolchildren caused by the epidemic of home foreclosures. The story was accompanied by a photo that haunted me.

It showed 9-year-old Charity Crowell, of Asheville, North Carolina whose family's home had been foreclosed on. As recounted by Eckholm, Charity had picked out the green and purple outfit she would wear on the first day of school, while vowing to bring her grades back up from the Cs she got last spring when her parents lost their jobs and car and the family was evicted and forced to move into a series of friends' houses and then a motel -- and now a trailer, from which they are also facing eviction.

I've already been thinking a lot about the human cost of the millions of foreclosures taking place across America. But after I read this article, I dug deeper into the impact of foreclosures on schoolchildren. And I wanted to communicate the sense of urgency I felt to the thousand people gathered at the conference, including Bill and Melinda Gates, Deputy Secretary of Education Tony Miller, New York City School Chancellor Joel Klein, and Stephen Colbert, who emceed the event. So I decided to scrap my planned speech and talk about the crisis.

We don't have the current numbers of homeless school children. The latest national data we have is from last spring, when there were over one million schoolchildren who were homeless. But since last spring, two million more jobs have been lost, and home foreclosures have continued to rise at an epidemic pace. How many of the million homes that have received foreclosure filings in the last six months included school age children?

We have anecdotal evidence from school districts like San Antonio, which has enrolled 1,000 homeless students in the first two weeks of school -- double the amount as at the same point last year.

We live in a country that, one year ago this month, came together with a sense of national emergency, and bailed out banks that were "too big to fail."

Shouldn't we also be living in a country that can come together right now and bail out schoolchildren that are too small to be allowed to fail before they have been allowed to succeed?

"I couldn't go to sleep," 9-year-old Charity said of her last semester. "I was worried about all the stuff." As a result, she often fell asleep in class.

Since 2001, federal law has required every school district to appoint a liaison to the homeless charged with identifying and helping families, including sending school buses to pick up the kids sleeping in run-down motels, or living in cars, homeless shelters, or on the streets.

But school superintendents report that while this is a worthy law, Congress has largely passed the costs on to states and cities already facing massive budget deficits.

And we know that every day more and more families with schoolchildren are losing their homes. And more and more school districts are trying to bridge the gap and meet the growing need.

Eckholm tells the story of Emily Walters, the Buncombe County school district's liaison to the homeless, who "is busy as school begins, providing backpacks and other supplies, and signing homeless children up for free breakfasts and lunches."

The evening before school began, Ms. Walters drove 45 minutes to an RV campground to deliver a scientific calculator and other essential school supplies to Cody Curry, 14, who lives with his mother, Dawn, and his brother, Zack, 11, in a camper. Mrs. Curry had to downsize from a trailer, she said, when her work as a sales clerk was cut to two days a week.
"We see 8-year-olds telling Mom not to worry, don't cry," Bill Murdock, who is also working with homeless school children, told Eckholm.

It's hard to hear stories like these and not be outraged that, as a country, we have given trillions of dollars to save banks like Bank of America, Citigroup, JPMorgan Chase, and Wells Fargo that are now turning around and refusing to modify mortgages, so that at least people with children can stay in their homes.

It's important to remember that many of the people losing their homes now are not people with crazy sub-prime mortgages or who took out massive loans they couldn't afford. They are hard working, middle class Americans who have lost their jobs and are struggling to make ends meet.

It's equally important to remember that these are the same banks that used bailout money -- our money -- to hire lobbyists to kill legislation in the Senate this spring that would have saved over a million-and-a-half people from losing their homes.

Even judges are getting angry. Judges like Arthur Schack of the State Supreme Court in Brooklyn who regularly refuses banks' petitions for foreclosure if every i is not dotted and every t is not crossed. "If you are going to take away someone's house," he told the New York Times, "everything should be legal and correct. I'm a strange guy -- I don't want to put a family on the street unless it's legitimate."

Home foreclosures are a gateway calamity, magnified exponentially when they affect America's children. Teaching our kids is tough enough under normal circumstances; it becomes nearly impossible when you add in the instability and inherent distress of homelessness.

So we need to take steps. And we need take them now. For starters, when there are children affected by the pending foreclosure, we need to revisit legislation allowing bankruptcy judges to modify the terms of home loans -- the horribly named cramdown provision. HuffPost's Ryan Grim reported today that Barney Frank plans to make cramdown part of the financial regulatory reform bill set to come before Congress this fall. We should make sure that the banking lobbyists aren't able to kill it again.

We should also require mandatory mediation between homeowners and lenders prior to any foreclosure. Currently, many lenders make it next to impossible for homeowners facing foreclosure to reach them. Pilot programs along these lines have succeeded in preventing or delaying foreclosures in the majority of cases. Then why don't we insist that mediation happens -- at least when there are schoolchildren involved?

In my original speech, I had planned to talk about the importance of teaching empathy to our children. The crisis of homeless students is an opportunity for all of us to teach it to our children by demonstrating it -- at the public policy level, as well as at the private charity level.

As a society, we cannot stand by and allow the banks we saved to bolster their bottom lines, then coldly and cavalierly write off our most vulnerable citizens, our children.

This is about much more than money. It's about our priorities as a nation. The conference focused on the need to rebuild our educational infrastructure. And that's incredibly important. But there is a fire blazing -- the rising homelessness among schoolchildren. And we desperately need to act before it turns into a conflagration.

Monday, September 07, 2009

Surge in Homeless Pupils Strains Schools:

In the small trailer her family rented over the summer, 9-year-old Charity Crowell picked out the green and purple outfit she would wear on the first day of school. She vowed to try harder and bring her grades back up from the C’s she got last spring — a dismal semester when her parents lost their jobs and car and the family was evicted and migrated through friends’ houses and a motel.

Charity is one child in a national surge of homeless schoolchildren that is driven by relentless unemployment and foreclosures. The rise, to more than one million students without stable housing by last spring, has tested budget-battered school districts as they try to carry out their responsibilities — and the federal mandate — to salvage education for children whose lives are filled with insecurity and turmoil.

The instability can be ruinous to schooling, educators say, adding multiple moves and lost class time to the inherent distress of homelessness. And so in accord with federal law, the Buncombe County district, where Charity attends, provides special bus service to shelters, motels, doubled-up houses, trailer parks and RV campgrounds to help children stay in their familiar schools as the families move about.

Still, Charity said of her last semester, “I couldn’t go to sleep, I was worried about all the stuff,” and she often nodded off in class.

Charity and her brother, Elijah Carrington, 6, were among 239 children from homeless families in her district as of last June, an increase of 80 percent over the year before, with indications this semester that as many or more will be enrolled in the months ahead.

While current national data are not available, the number of schoolchildren in homeless families appears to have risen by 75 percent to 100 percent in many districts over the last two years, according to Barbara Duffield, policy director of the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth, an advocacy group.

There were 679,000 homeless students reported in 2006-7, a total that surpassed one million by last spring, Ms. Duffield said.

With schools just returning to session, initial reports point to further rises. In San Antonio, for example, the district has enrolled 1,000 homeless students in the first two weeks of school, twice as many as at the same point last year.

“It’s hard enough going to school and growing up, but these kids also have to worry where they’ll be staying that night and whether they’ll eat,” said Bill Murdock, chief executive of Eblen-Kimmel Charities, a private group in Asheville that helps needy families with anything from food baskets and money for utility bills to toiletries and a prom dress.

“We see 8-year-olds telling Mom not to worry, don’t cry,” Mr. Murdock said.

Since 2001, federal law has required every district to appoint a liaison to the homeless, charged with identifying and aiding families who meet a broad definition of homelessness — doubling up in the homes of relatives or friends or sleeping in motels or RV campgrounds as well as living in cars, shelters or on the streets. A small minority of districts, including Buncombe County, have used federal grants or local money to make the position full time.

The law lays out rights for homeless children, including immediate school placement without proof of residence and a right to stay in the same school as the family is displaced. Providing transportation to the original school is an expensive logistical challenge in a huge district like Buncombe County, covering 700 square miles.

While the law’s goals are widely praised, school superintendents lament that Congress has provided little money, adding to the fiscal woes of districts. “The protections are important, but Congress has passed the cost to state and local taxpayers,” said Bruce Hunter, associate director of the American Association of School Administrators.

Fairfax County, Va., where the number of homeless students climbed from 1,100 in June 2007 to 1,800 last spring, has three social workers dedicated to the homeless and is using a temporary stimulus grant to assign a full-time transportation coordinator to commandeer buses, issue gas cards and sometimes call taxis to get the children to their original schools.

Like Fairfax County, the Asheville area looks prosperous, drawing tourists and retirees, but manicured lawns, million-dollar homes and golf courses mask the struggles of many adults working at low-paying jobs in sales and food service.

Emily Walters, the liaison to the homeless for the Buncombe County schools, is busy as school begins, providing backpacks and other supplies and signing children up for free breakfasts and lunches. But her job continues through the school year as other families lose their footing and those who had concealed their status, because of the stigma or because they were not aware of the benefits, join the list.

Sometimes it includes driving families in crisis to look at prospective shelters — a temporary solution at best, Ms. Walters said. When the county receives a two-year stimulus grant next month, she said, she hopes there will be more money to help people avoid eviction or pay security deposits for new rentals.

The evening before school began, Ms. Walters drove 45 minutes to an RV campground to deliver a scientific calculator and other essential school supplies to Cody Curry, 14, who lives with his mother, Dawn, and his brother, Zack, 11, in a camper. Mrs. Curry had to downsize from a trailer, she said, when her work as a sales clerk was cut to two days a week.

The first day of school, Ms. Walters drove to a men’s rescue shelter in the city to take Nate Fountain, 18, to high school. Nate said his parents kicked him out of the house last spring, during his senior year, because he was not doing his school work and was drinking and using drugs. With Ms. Walters’s help, he said, he expects to finish high school this semester and study culinary arts at a community college.

“I spend a lot of time just making sure the kids stay in school,” Ms. Walters said.

The busing service was especially valued by Leslie Laws, who was laid off from her job in customer service last year and lost her rental apartment.

Ms. Laws and her 12-year-old son are staying in a women’s shelter in Asheville, far from his former school. He is deeply involved with activities like chorus. Now he must catch the bus at 6:05 a.m. and ride one and a half hours each way.

Educators and advocates for the homeless across the country said that in the current recession, the law had made a difference, minimizing destructive gaps in schooling and linking schools with social welfare agencies.

Charity Crowell, despite her vow to bring up her grades, may be in store for another rough semester. Her stepfather works long hours delivering food on commission, but business is poor. Her mother, Katrina, wants to look for a job, but that is difficult without a car.

Food stamps help, but by the second half of each month the family is mostly eating “Beanee Weenees and noodles,” Ms. Crowell said. As school resumed in late August, the family was facing eviction from the $475-a-month trailer and uncertain about what to do next.

By ERIK ECKHOLM New York Times published 9/6/09

Sunday, September 06, 2009

Hillsborough County is to be commended for giving a proposal to help the homeless the attention it deserves. In the last month, officials have worked to salvage a plan by Catholic Charities to build a "tent city" for the homeless east of Tampa. The tents may not be ideal, but they are a start toward addressing the worst homeless problem in the state.

Catholic Charities proposed building a camp of 250 tents and casitas, or wooden sheds, on church-owned land near where Hillsborough Avenue connects with Interstate 4. The complex would also include a community building where tenants would eat, bathe and receive life-skills training. Modeled after a similar program the church runs with success in Pinellas County, the tent city could offer temporary housing for about 1,000 people a year. Residents would have a safe, healthy environment in which to rebuild their lives and find jobs and permanent homes.

The effort stalled this summer after a county hearing officer ruled the tents did not meet minimum housing standards. Residents near the proposed site also complained the tents would lower their property values. The commission was right to dismiss both obstacles. County staff is now rewriting the housing code to expressly permit homeless camps and other such temporary housing. The wording is narrow enough to serve the homeless without weakening the housing standards countywide. Church officials have agreed to tighten oversight of the camp. They are also open to making physical changes to the site to improve security and transportation.

The church's commitment could help Hillsborough better care for its 10,000 homeless, the largest number of any county in the state. County commissioners were right that the bureaucracy should not stand in the way of a good idea. The project is not a done deal. Commissioners need to be open in working with the church to get this tent city, and perhaps another, off the ground. But they were right to side with this admirable project instead of with those who denigrated the homeless. The homeless are here, they are our fellow residents and their dignity and safety deserves consideration.

An editorial from the St. Petersburg Times published September 4, 2009

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