For homeless kids, new school year means challenges and hopes
September 4, 2012By Maiken Scott
It's back to school time this week, and for about 9,000 Pennsylvania kids who are homeless, the beginning of the school year means hope for a new beginning, and new challenges.
People's Emergency Center in West Philadelphia offers housing for women and children, and helps them find permanent places to live. Many women who come here have experienced domestic violence, some have struggled with addiction. Often they have gone from couch to couch and place to place before ending up on the street.
"I just kept getting kicked out, every time, one minute I'm in there, next minute they kick me out," recalled 29-year old Vanessa from North Philadelphia of her experience before coming to PEC. She has four children, and is pregnant. Her family is one of more than 200 staying in PEC's transitional housing.
This kind of life takes a huge toll on a child's education, according to Farah Jimenez, PEC president. Statewide, only 40 percent of kids experiencing homelessness graduate from high school. Only 28 percent are proficient in math.
"It's a huge problem, because that means 72 percent aren't, and that means they won't be able to either make change, or find themselves not being able to move into higher math," she says.
Only 40 percent of homeless kids in Pennsylvania are proficient in reading. Add to that emotional and behavioral challenges, says Jimenez.
"That moving around from place to place creates an instability in the child that often gets presented as mental health issues or learning disabilities," she said.
Stability can alleviate behavior issues
Vanessa's 9-year-old son, Quadek, has experienced trouble in school. He has had behavior problems and was fighting and talking a lot.
Jimenez says that, for many kids, those issues are resolved when their lives become more predictable. She recalls the story of one little girl who cried all the time when she first arrived at the shelter. Several red flags came up during routine screens for learning disabilities and mental health issues. After a few weeks at the shelter, she did much better.
"That heightened anxiety just blocked her ability to learn and be ready for school, but once she knew that 'wow -- I'm not going to have to move every night, I won't have to worry about whether I will have a meal,' they were better able to learn," Jimenez said.
Vanessa's two older children will start at new schools this year. She has high hopes for this new beginning. She wants Quadek to become more focused -- and hopes her 11-year-old daughter, Jabria, finds her new school is a better place.
"To do well in school -- better than other schools that she went to, learn more, and get more attention," Vanessa says.
Jabria said she is excited, but also worried because it's a new school and she doesn't know anyone there.
Jabria, her siblings and her mother are waiting for permanent housing and say they should be able to move in soon.
Sometimes parents go back to school too
Farah Jimenez says families living in homeless shelters can choose to return to their old neighborhood school, or pick a new one, and staff at PEC help parents find the best match.
They also encourage moms to further their own education -- to get a GED if they didn't finish high school, or to think about college courses.
"All of that is an investment into themselves, but more importantly, it's an investment in their children's future because their children see mom really wanting to succeed and valuing education," she said.
Jimenez says in terms of donations, "back to school" is more important at the shelter than the holidays. She says giving backpacks, notebooks or pens is an investment in a child's future.