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Thursday, Dec. 13, 2012 07:59 am

Kids at the margins

Springfield steps up to help homeless children


The anti-homelessness team at Hazel Dell Elementary consists of Vivian Jones (back left), a parent educator, Jamar Scott (back right), principal, and Heather Tatum (far right), a social worker. They are pictured with several children who attend Hazel Dell

They live in hotels, cars or even at campgrounds. When the winter wind blows, they’re the children who don’t have coats. When it’s time to take a quiz, they’re the children who don’t have pencils or paper. Many of them may not even know whether they’ll get to eat dinner on a given night.

They are homeless children, and there are more of them in Springfield than most people realize. So far this school year, about 400 homeless students have been identified in Springfield Public Schools, and school administrators expect to identify as many as 700 by the end of the school year. While homeless students may not actually live on the streets as the term suggests, they do lack the stability of a fixed residence. For most homeless kids, that means living in dirty, substandard hotels without utilities, short stints on a relative’s couch, or vying for one of the scarce spots at a homeless shelter.

It’s a sobering problem, but there is hope. Two energetic new nonprofit groups have sprung up in Springfield to provide homeless children with meals, mentoring and resources that add to the school district’s existing efforts.

Compass director Molly Berendt, shown here with a Harvard Park student during homework time, started the after-school program last year with one church serving children from one school. Now Compass has expanded to serve children from six public schools.

The school district defines homeless children as “individuals who lack a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence.” That includes children whose families are chronically homeless, or whose families are going through a crisis like job loss, disease or domestic abuse. It also includes what the district calls “unaccompanied youth,” who are not in the care of their parents or legal guardians, perhaps due to substance abuse, strained relationships or some other issue.

Vivian Jones, a parent educator working at Hazel Dell Elementary School and Laketown Elementary School, says the struggling economy has left many families just a paycheck or two away from trouble. A lost job or even a particularly large utility bill can put a struggling family over budget, meaning the rent doesn’t get paid, and the family later ends up out on the street. Jones says most families in this situation end up in low-rent hotels.

Heather Tatum, a social worker at Hazel Dell, adds that falling back on family members is no longer an option for many families.

“Their relatives are strapped, too,” Tatum says. “We used to see a lot of families that would kind of ‘couch surf.’ Maybe they’re in a bad situation but they have several family members or friends who they could rely on. But now, everybody’s in dire straits, and there’s not even the opportunity to do that.”

As a result, children must learn to cope with moving often, sleeping on the floor, and lacking basic necessities like underwear.

“They’re growing up big time in those hotels,” Jones said. “You can’t be a kid if you’re worrying about where your next meal will come from.”

Darla Haley first got involved in the issue when her teenage daughter began bringing home friends who had nowhere else to go. Haley started as the homeless children and youth liaison for the school district about five years ago, making her the first person to hold that job on a full-time basis.

Haley says when the school district identifies a homeless child, the first priority is making sure the child stays in school. That means providing transportation if the child needs to move to another part of the city. Next, the district makes sure the child gets to eat at least twice a day with free or reduced-price breakfast and lunch. Donated school supplies help the child continue her or his schoolwork, and the district offers to waive school fees for things like textbooks, uniforms and records. Once the district ensures the child’s schooling isn’t disrupted, Haley and her staff begin connecting the family with community agencies offering resources like help with bills and rehousing.

Volunteer Gabrielle Thomas helps a student with homework at First Church of the Brethren, which hosts Compass for Harvard Park students in partnership with Harvard Park Baptist Church, Mt. Zion Apostolic Church and Luther Memorial Evangelical Lutheran Chu

Haley says the instability and inconsistency of homelessness takes a terrible toll on children, disrupting their schooling, and ultimately their development as people.

“What we often see is students going in search of stability,” Haley said. “You go to look for something that is satisfying. You seek out something that’s going to make you feel accepted and comfortable and safe, and often the dangerous part of that is connecting with people of the wrong influence – those for whom education is not a priority. That is, unfortunately, where we see dropouts, crime and substance abuse. That’s what we want to get a handle on and prevent.”

While there aren’t yet official statistics showing academic gaps between homeless students and permanently housed students in Springfield, one study published in 2004 in the Journal of School Psychology showed that homeless students are more likely than permanently housed students to score poorly on standardized tests, more likely to repeat grades and less likely to attend college.

That’s no surprise to Jamar Scott, principal of Hazel Dell Elementary School.

“Kids cannot learn if they don’t even know whether they’re going to eat,” Scott said. “These kids never know whether they’re going to have to sit alone in a dark, cold hotel room waiting for their mom to come home.”

While Scott admits that some parents of homeless children have made poor choices that led to their homelessness, most of them have simply fallen on hard times.

“No one would choose this for themselves and their children,” Scott said. “The children didn’t choose this.  We’ve got to refocus on the children, because they cannot control any of that.”

Scott and his team at Hazel Dell often find themselves using their own private vehicles to transport children to and from school, or to drive parents to job interviews and grocery stores. They call social service agencies, looking for solutions to each family’s particular crisis. They’ve seen heartbreaking situations like children sleeping on a dirt floor, children wearing flip-flops in winter because they lack adequate shoes, and mothers having to sleep right next to their children because they can’t trust the people with whom they’re staying.

What keeps the team at Hazel Dell going in such a dismaying environment?

“You get those hugs from those kids,” Jones said. “You get those thankful hugs and you cannot pass that (job) off.”

“The thank-yous, and the fact that you can go home for a weekend and know that a particular kid or family is going to be okay until I see them again on Monday,” Tatum added. “That’s what keeps me going.”

Faithful helpers

Molly Berendt of Springfield knew from the age of 16 that her purpose in life was to help homeless children. She is director of the Compass after-school program for homeless and low-income elementary students in Springfield Public Schools. Compass is funded by a grant of $80,000 per year for two years from United Way and donations from Springfield businesses and charities. Berendt started the free program herself as a part-time project in the fall of 2011, and she was hired by the Springfield-based Family Service Center to build the program full-time. Compass serves 210 children from six public schools around Springfield, offering a snack, homework tutoring, life-skills lessons and a healthy dinner. More importantly, Compass offers one-on-one mentorship that introduces consistency into otherwise chaotic lives.

“What we really try to do is have the children and the volunteers build relationships,” Berendt said. “When we recruit volunteers, we ask them to make a commitment and be consistent, because the children don’t often have that in their home lives. And it’s not that their parents don’t care; it’s that their parents are so busy or stressed. They live in high-poverty situations, and their lives are crazy and hectic, so they don’t often have the time to spend with their children, even if they do love them and want the best for them.”

The program is usually held at churches that are in the same neighborhoods as the schools. Berendt says that provides an additional anchor for homeless children.

Compass volunteer Carole Christie shows students how to frost a cookie during a Compass Christmas party held last week.

“It gives students an additional location in their neighborhood where they feel safe and connected, and it gives the parents a place in their neighborhood where they feel connected and can get referrals to other resources,” Berendt said. “The parents feel like not only is the school there for them, but they also have this church, this program and these volunteers who love their kids and will be there to help if needed.”

For Berendt, the Compass program is an outgrowth of her faith. She started out on that path by volunteering with underprivileged kids at an after-school program in Cincinnati at age 14. When she was 16, she interned at a summer camp for homeless children.

“That completely redirected my life path,” she said. “Ever since then, I haven’t known exactly what I wanted to do, but I knew that I had to spend my life serving homeless children.”

She moved to Springfield two years ago and began attending Douglas Avenue Methodist Church. There, she became friends with the church’s pastor, Julia Melgreen, who encouraged Berendt to turn her dream into reality. Douglas Avenue Methodist Church became the test pilot for the Compass program, partnering with Dubois Elementary School. The program now also serves Graham Elementary, Harvard Park Elementary, Black Hawk Elementary, Hazel Dell Elementary and Matheny-Withrow Elementary schools, with the help of several churches located near those schools. Berendt says she wants to partner with more groups to serve schools across the district.

This summer, Camp Compass will offer a four-week program for about 100 children, with a focus on improving math and reading skills over the summer. The camp will provide transportation, field trips, breakfast, lunch and an afternoon snack.

In the meantime, Berendt says the school district will help Compass track student grades, school attendance and achievement benchmarks so that volunteers know what kind of help to offer individual children.

On a recent day at the Compass location in Westminster Presbyterian Church, which serves Graham Elementary School, volunteer Sharon Smith of Springfield helped a fourth-grade girl sound out words from a picture book. Smith said many of the children struggle with reading.

“It’s challenging, and sometimes I don’t know what else I can do,” Smith said. “I don’t know what their home life is like, so I just do whatever I can to help and be a role model, so they can see what a caring person looks like.”

Later that evening, Smith led a group of young girls as they learned to bake chocolate chip cookies. Smith turned the cookie recipe into a lesson on reading, math and science.

“I just try to do with them what I would do with my own kids and grandkids,” she said.

That “normal” life of stability is part of what Ann Libri of Springfield hopes to provide when she launches The Matthew Project at the start of 2013.  Like Compass, The Matthew Project will be a free after-school program offering a snack, tutoring, life skill lessons and a healthy dinner. Libri’s program will exclusively serve homeless children.

Libri first got involved with the issue of homelessness because her sister, a nurse for the school district, would tell Libri about children who came to school without a coat, adequate shoes or some other necessity. Libri says she started purchasing the needed clothing or supplies, and soon she began to keep some on hand for emergencies. Pretty soon, Libri ran out of closet space and had her friends store supplies, too.

The informal project grew quickly as Libri saw more and more needs. She decided to make the project official, and her husband, Sangamon County Circuit Clerk Tony Libri, purchased the building at 622 S. Eighth St. to store the supplies and act as headquarters for The Matthew Project. One whole wall of the building will be filled with new clothes and school supplies that children can earn with “Matthew Money” – a play currency that rewards school attendance, good grades and good behavior.

“We want to teach them that you can go ahead and buy that pencil and notebook tonight, or you can save for two weeks and get that book bag,” Libri says, adding that immediate needs won’t require a child to earn money. “We want to encourage saving, but we’re going to give them the freedom to buy what they want. Another component is to teach them about hard work and sacrifice, about taking ownership of their skills. We basically want to teach these kids what we’re teaching our own children.”

Libri says the name of the program comes from the biblical book of Matthew, in which Jesus says, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”

“We just want to take the biblical principal of ‘love thy neighbor’ and recognize that we have a mission field right here in our back yard,” Libri said. “I’m overwhelmed at the community support so far. That’s what I love about this city and this community. I love being a part of it because we’re not going to turn our backs on these kids. We’re going to help them be successful.”

Contact Patrick Yeagle at pyeagle@illinoistimes.com.

Two students have a hula hoop contest during the Compass Christmas party held last week at First Church of the Brethren.

Why are so many children homeless?

Despite their best efforts, those involved in fighting homelessness among children say they’re only scratching the surface of the problem. The root causes of homeless remain unabated, advocates say, and several factors exacerbate the problem in Springfield.

“We are definitely not getting to the root of the problem,” said Molly Berendt, program director of the Compass after-school program run by the Family Service Center in Springfield. “We are trying to offer a temporary solution. I don’t think anyone is really tackling the root of it because there’s more than one root. We don’t have enough beds for homeless people in Springfield. We don’t have enough shelters for homeless families. We don’t have a good enough system of public transportation for our families to get around. There are just so many different issues.”

The struggling economy undoubtedly contributes to the increase in homelessness nationwide as jobs are lost, homes are foreclosed and social service agencies that previously provided some buffer against homelessness see their funding cut drastically.

“Even the two-parent families that had been making it are all of a sudden struggling to the extent that they’re just barely even covering their utilities,” says Vivian Jones, a parent educator at Hazel Dell and Laketown elementary schools.  She is part of a team at the school district that attempts to help families at risk of homelessness.

Hazel Dell principal Jamar Scott says housing options for families with very low income are “horrible.” Many of them should be shut down for flagrant building code violations, he says.

“You hate to think of anybody living like that, let alone kids,” he said. “It ought to be illegal for some of these places to be open. We’ve been in buildings that have no lights. The living room would be completely dark. The mailboxes are completely open.”

Scott says many parents of homeless children lack adequate education, and there aren’t enough affordable GED programs to help those parents gain basic qualifications for many jobs.

“We need to find ways to help these families gain independence,” Scott says.

Meanwhile, he says, the lack of space in local homeless shelters means many families compete for resources.

“We had one family come to us asking for help getting into a shelter, so we called the shelter up,” he said. “Turns out there’s five families competing for that one spot, and luckily our family got in, but then you wonder what happened to the other four families.”

Scott says most families of homeless children lack cars, and public transportation is lacking in Springfield.

“We can set you up with a job, but if it’s three buses away and you have three kids in school and have to be there when the kids get off the school bus, how are you going to work full time?” he said. “It’s impossible.”

Darla Haley, homeless children and youth liaison for Springfield Public Schools, says families often come to Springfield from other areas, putting more pressure on already overburdened relief systems.

“They think there’s an abundance of resources here because it’s the capital,” Haley explains. “We’re already ill-equipped to handle the existing families, and then there’s an influx of new families in need.”

She notes that every closed business in Springfield means fewer jobs, and too many of the remaining jobs pay low wages that can’t support a family. Couple that with an inadequate stock of affordable housing and, Haley says, the number of homeless children identified in the district will probably reach 700 this school year. Without a concentrated, community-wide effort to deal with homelessness, she expects the number of homeless children to keep growing.

“All children want a safe place to call home,” she says.

In the meantime, Molly Berendt at Compass says she hopes collaboration with other agencies, churches and even businesses will help provide solutions. Ultimately, she wants to offer services to children from birth to age 18.

“Right now, even though we’re growing, we can’t grow fast enough,” Berendt says. “We focus on elementary, but we also need to take care of the middle-schoolers, the high-schoolers and the kids from birth to age five. We see such a need, but we can’t do it on our own.”


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