Homeless in homeroom
The nearly 2,000 homeless students in Tulsa Public Schools face significant barriers to receiving an education.
When Katie* begins her eighth-grade year this month at Central Junior High, she will look just like her peers.
She will arrive by bus, wearing the same school uniform and carrying the necessary supplies. She will anxiously find a seat in new classrooms with many kids she hasn’t seen since May.
But there are stark differences between Katie and the other middle-schoolers roaming the halls.
Perhaps most importantly for a 14-year-old, she never invites friends over after school or for a slumber party.
That’s because the bus driver picked Katie up at the Salvation Army Center of Hope, one of the few homeless shelters in Tulsa that accepts families. She has lived there for two years with her mother and three younger siblings.
Katie is one of nearly 2,000 homeless students within Tulsa Public Schools, the second-largest school district in the state.
The McKinney-Vento Act is a federal law that defines homeless children and youth as “individuals who lack a fixed, regular and adequate night-time residence.”
This includes children living in shelters, hotels or campgrounds, those sharing living accommodations due to economic hardship or loss of housing, and those awaiting placement in a foster home.
For students like Katie, the act provides transportation to and from school free of charge and allows children to attend their school of origin — the last school in which they were enrolled or the school they attended when they became homeless.
The law is intended to protect homeless children, and it helps. So do the district-wide uniform requirement and the TPS practice that enables “shelter kids” to be picked up first and dropped off last.
But nothing masks Katie’s feelings about the secret she keeps from nearly everyone at school.
“I’m embarrassed,” she says quietly, avoiding eye contact. “I don’t want people to know I live in the shelter.”
*Name changed to protect privacy.
SOURCE: Oklahoma Department of Education
Oklahoma has more homeless children than ever before, according to the state department of education, which tracked a 43 percent increase from 2011-13. The reasons for this increase are not clear.
Likewise, Loida Delgado, TPS coordinator for parent involvement and homeless education, says the district has approximately 600 more homeless students than it did three years ago.
Delgado says she isn’t sure why the number is rising but suggests the district is getting better at identifying those students.
TPS becomes aware of homeless students in three ways: at enrollment, through referrals by caseworkers at local shelters and from a student’s school (if the student becomes homeless during the academic year).
The reasons for homelessness vary among TPS students, but Delgado says most stem from significant poverty.
“If a person who goes through a hardship has a savings account, they can maybe survive for six months, but a person who is really poor ... ” she says. “Sometimes there are illnesses. Sometimes parents die. There are all kinds of situations.”
SOURCE: Loida Delgado
Homeless students clearly have significant barriers to obtaining an education. Without stable housing, nutritious food and sleeping well, completing schoolwork and studying become arduous. Regular attendance also can be difficult, especially for students who must work to provide for themselves or their families.
The National Conference of State Legislatures estimates that 75 percent of homeless or runaway youth nationwide have dropped out or will drop out of school.
According to Delgado, the district excuses absences due to homelessness, but she says attendance is largely dependent on the motivation of a student and his or her guardian.
“I have kids who have moved from shelter to Grandma to another house to another house, but those kids have not missed school,” she says, adding that this is not always the case.
SOURCE: TPS *Loida Delgado with TPS says she is unsure why this drop in homeless students occurred from 2010-11 to 2011-12.
Every TPS school has a homeless liaison — often a designated caseworker or counselor — tasked with identifying and checking on homeless students and connecting them with resources. Chris Payne, executive director of communications for TPS, says the setup helps the district remove educational barriers where possible.
For example, school supplies, uniforms, shoes and free or reduced breakfast and lunch are provided to homeless students whose parents complete the necessary paperwork.
“Like all school districts in Oklahoma, Tulsa Public Schools is responsible for educating all children, and this is a calling we take very seriously,” Payne says. “It’s our job to meet students where they are, and for homeless students, that means helping them with very basic needs that many of us take for granted.”
Like Katie, most homeless students have a strong desire to go to school, he says.
“Education is the No. 1 thing in their life that will be a difference-maker. That’s why we are so committed to keeping these students in the classroom. Education is their best shot at having a future beyond the streets.”
SOURCE: Oklahoma: Consolidated State Performance Report (2012-13), National Center for Homeless Education
Homeless and hungry
In his 28 years in the restaurant industry, Todd Kramer fed thousands of Tulsans. But the former restaurant owner and operator says he experienced “a calling” three years ago to leave the food business for a new line of work: teaching at Nathan Hale High School.
Despite his job change, Kramer is still feeding people. This time, they are the students who come to his classroom throughout the day for the pieces of fruit and granola bars that Kramer purchases. Many of the students are homeless.
“A lot of kids go couch to couch” or are from broken homes, Kramer says. Some parents are involved with drugs and alcohol or simply work nights. “There are also students who work late hours to support themselves and their families.”
Most homeless students — and many others — are “food insecure,” meaning they don’t know when or how they will get their next meal.
For many Hale students, free or reduced school breakfasts and lunches are the only nutritious meals they receive during the week.
However, Kramer says some hungry students don’t receive these benefits because their parents haven’t filled out the necessary paperwork.
“Most of the kids go home on the weekend not knowing what they’re going to eat or they’re not eating right,” he says. “I’ve found the kids we give good snacks to do better in school.”
Initiatives such as the Community Food Bank of Eastern Oklahoma’s Backpack for Kids program help fight food insecurity by providing students, including those in TPS, with groceries over weekends and holiday breaks. However, the program doesn’t yet reach to all middle and high schools.
In the meantime, Kramer and an unlikely group of Tulsans are expanding his vision to fill hungry stomachs at Hale.
A new priority
Shortly after Calvin Moore became president and CEO of Meals on Wheels of Tulsa, he sought to expand the nonprofit’s core mission of providing meals to area seniors. Moore says many of the 5,000 MOW organizations across the country have done the same.
He and Kramer met in fall 2014, setting Moore on a path to learn about the nutritional deficiencies of homeless and other food insecure high-schoolers, and how that impacts them later in life.
“Students who go through adolescence and are food insecure develop long-term health issues,” says Moore, whose research shows that teens are often overfed yet undernourished. “It causes them to become dependent on social service agencies like MOW much earlier.”
This month, MOW of Tulsa and several community partners, including a local grocery store chain, will launch a privately funded, $225,000 pilot program called the Meals on Wheels High School Adoption Program. The program has three components, one of which is the Nathan Hale Snack Sack Project.
The Snack Sack Project will provide Hale students with nutritious food on weekends and holiday breaks. Moore says the program will help strengthen the magnet school’s culinary arts emphasis in which approximately 300 students participate.
Hale’s culinary students will volunteer with MOW and receive training to prepare and pack nutritious, ready-to-eat food that will be sent home with their food insecure peers, Moore says. The Snack Sack Project is open to all Hale students, and “students will have a prominent voice and hand in shaping the program going forward,” Moore says.
The hope is to create a “workforce development pipeline” for some Hale students to eventually enter the local food service industry. Opportunities for mentorship and internships in local restaurants, hotels and grocery store chains are being organized for summer 2016.
“For Meals on Wheels, it was a ‘eureka’ moment,” Moore says. “We can take some preventative measures and attract a younger demographic to our mission, plus impact student outcomes.”
The organization also plans to establish a food pantry for food insecure students at Hale.
Beyond helping implement the Hale Snack Sack Project, Kramer says he is developing a separate nonprofit that would focus on mentoring and meeting the everyday needs of Hale students. In the meantime, he plans to continue fulfilling his calling by feeding those who are hungry.
“I saw the needs,” he says. “It’s just a passion of mine to take care of these kids.”
Kelley Maricle, family case manager at the Salvation Army, has lived up to her name many times in her 12-year career helping families get back on their feet.
She has spent the past six years at the Center of Hope, where homeless individuals and families can receive food, showers, temporary housing and other services.
“We meet with the families, figure out where they’ve been, why they’re here and what we need to do to help them become self-sufficient again and stay self-sufficient,” she says.
Working with families is complicated because individuals have different needs, she says. In some cases, family dynamics can be a “pressure cooker” on the verge of explosion.
“The kids — especially when they hit those teenage years — they’re embarrassed, they’re mad at their parents for screwing up and now they’ve landed here,” Maricle says. “The little ones, they don’t fully comprehend it to a certain age.”
Many parents who come to the Center of Hope have experienced generational poverty, abuse and addiction. Others have simply fallen on hard times.
“Some absolutely made every decision that they should have made, and they still ended up here,” she says. “It’s just circumstances beyond their control: death, divorce, job loss.”
Children under 18 can stay at the Center of Hope as long as they are with a parent. Unaccompanied minors are referred to the emergency shelter at Youth Services of Tulsa.
After shelter guests get settled, Maricle helps enroll their children in school and makes sure students have what they need. When possible, she tries to make sure they receive some of the accommodations of a “normal” child.
“If they need a sack lunch to take to school, we can do that,” she says. “If they have any kind of extracurricular activity and they’re going to be coming in late, then we’ll have a late dinner for them and a reserved bed to make sure they’re sleeping well.”
Maricle says older children work with her to develop an action plan to stay in school.
“That may sound really basic to some people,” she says. “That’s a big thing for these kids — to stay in school, to make sure I have a lunch to take, to make sure I have dinner.”
SOURCE: Loida Delgado
On their own
The National Center for Homeless Education estimates that 78 percent of Oklahoma’s homeless youth “couch surf” among friends’ and relatives’ homes. Although the practice — sometimes called “doubling up” — provides a temporary place to stay, students can be kicked out at a moment’s notice. With no other options, some are forced to the streets.
Youth Services of Tulsa operates the city’s only emergency shelter for unaccompanied adolescents ages 12-18. In 2014, the facility served 461 youth, providing them hot meals, case management, counseling and connection to the area schools’ homeless liaisons.
SOURCE: National Conference of State Legislatures
“As you can imagine, for a young person to end up on the streets, they’ve been let down by adults,” says David Grewe, executive director of YST. “So, there’s lots of mistrust of adults and of the system and significant levels of trauma these young people have experienced. Our goal is to build trust with them by meeting their basic needs.”
In Grewe’s experience with homeless Tulsa youth about one-third are former foster care youth, and one-third identify as LGBTQ, he says. Some are turned out by their parents at age 18.
This growing population’s need for additional resources spurred YST to expand in recent years.
The organization began street outreach in 2002 and in 2012 opened a drop-in center for homeless teens. Grewe says the center, called “The Station,” served 645 youth from July 2013-June 2014.
At The Station, youth have a safe place to get meals, take a shower, use laundry facilities, obtain clothing and become involved in engagement activities such as Street Yoga and music club. Tutoring, counseling and transportation to and from school and extracurricular activities also are available to The Station guests.
Earlier this year, YST partnered with the University of Oklahoma School of Community Medicine to open a clinic for runaway and homeless youth on the YST campus at East Fourth Street and South Madison Avenue.
After arriving at YST, homeless youth applying for the transitional living program meet with case managers to discuss their needs and educational, employment and relationship goals, Grewe says.
The transitional living program is available to youth ages 17-22 who are working, attending school and demonstrating sufficient progress toward independence.
For 12-18 months, participants are given a furnished apartment and are offered counseling, case management, and life skills and
employment readiness training in a group learning environment. Youth pay 25 percent of their income into a rental account that they receive back as they complete the program, which helps them learn to pay rent and save. This also provides money for deposits when they move out on their own. Youth facing mental health challenges have access to community-based services through the Oklahoma Healthy Transitions Initiative.
The transitional living program has seen significant success among its graduates.
“Eighty-two percent have a job and a stable place to live six months post-program,” Grewe says.
SOURCE: National Conference of State Legislatures
Amber Barnes, 19, is one of YST’s “success stories” in the making. Meeting her, it’s difficult to imagine that the well-spoken, mature young woman has spent much of her life homeless.
But Barnes says her mother’s on- and off-again relationships kept her bouncing from house to house throughout her childhood. As an adolescent, she often lived with friends and relatives before graduating from Memorial High School and moving out with a boyfriend at age 18.
The relationship ended shortly after Barnes began attending Tulsa Community College full time through the Tulsa Achieves program.
After running out of places to stay, she ultimately slept in her car for two weeks — while attending classes and working part time at a local grocery store.
Barnes says her small check was largely spent on her car and insurance payments. She ate on whatever was left, which sometimes was nothing.
Eventually Barnes worked up the courage to ask a TCC instructor for help.
“I stayed after class and asked him, ‘Where would I go if I didn’t have any food?’” she recalls.
The instructor provided Barnes with some food and a list of resources, which led her to YST. She is now six months into the transitional living program and has a new job. This fall, she will continue her education, studying psychology at TCC and cosmetology at Tulsa Technology Center.
Barnes says she empathizes with students like Katie who carry the challenges and shame of homelessness at a young age, as she did.
“People always tell me that I’m wise beyond my years,” Barnes says. “I feel so much older than I am.
“But it’s not that you want to be wise. It’s not by choice.”