Preschool for homeless kids finds a home

Maybe in the larger scheme of things, this is small stuff. But on a day gloomy with bad weather and worse news, I was happy to learn that a Baltimore preschool for homeless children won't be homeless itself after all.

I'd written about The Ark this summer, at a time when it was desperate to find another home because its downtown building was being sold. Something about a preschool for homeless kids being booted out into the street just gnawed at me — and apparently others.

"All I did was pick up the phone and call a number of folks who I thought might care," said Mark Furst. president and CEO of United Way of Central Maryland.

Furst, leery that I was going to make him the hero of this story, quickly noted that he had little trouble rallying people to his new cause. "Who could be more vulnerable than homeless preschoolers?"

Luckily, Furst knows not just people who care, but people in the position of doing something about it. We're at a time when we need just that: As you might have seen last week in The Baltimore Sun, new census figures show, astonishingly, that one in four residents now live in poverty.

In a city with such a persistent underclass, even this jump in the poverty rate — 20 percent in a year's time — doesn't provoke much more than a few shakes of the head. Maybe it's just too hard to wrap your head around that much misery, or what exactly to do about it.

Or maybe it's just easier to assume the poor got there on their own — never mind the crushing recession that has helped to add to the largest number of impoverished people since the census started tracking them — and they're just going to have to get themselves out of it on their own, too.

But it's harder to dismiss the most tragic part of the new census numbers — that 37 percent of Baltimore children live in poverty.

They're not all homeless, of course. But at least for those who are, I have to be glad there are places like The Ark. Just not enough of them.

"We always have a waiting list," said Jean P. Cushman, executive director of Episcopal Community Services of Maryland, the charity that operates the preschool.

Started in 1989, it's the only state-accredited preschool for homeless kids. It's currently licensed for 20 children a day. It usually serves many more over the course of a year, as families move in and out of homelessness.

Cushman said she was stunned at how much support she found when The Ark's troubles became known.

"That was very moving and touching," she said. "It was very inspiring to see the community come around. They didn't want our program to end."

Furst called on nonprofits and public agencies, and soon a number of possible new locations emerged that met The Ark's needs.

As a federal Head Start program, the school has to meet a range of requirements, such as access to a playground. And, serving the homeless, it had to be near shelters and bus lines.

Cushman and The Ark's director, Nancy E. Newman, knew when they visited Johnson Square Elementary School that they had found the right place.

"Nancy and I felt like we were home," she said. "It's everything we feel children deserve. Children deserve to be in a clean, bright, positive space."

The feeling was mutual for their new "landlady," Principal Tanya Glenn-Butler.

"I used to be a social worker," she said by way of explanation.

When school district officials proposed housing The Ark in some extra rooms in her school, Glenn-Butler said they didn't have to persuade her.

"Without a doubt, there was nothing to think about," she said. "I just think it's important we support our families with early childhood education in the right way."

The space is currently going through inspections, and The Ark hopes to move from its current location, at 1200 E. Fayette St., within the next two months.

Cushman sees the resolution of The Ark's woes as recognition of a problem that all too easily flies under our radar.

"As soon as people are educated about this problem, they're very concerned," she said. "In your everyday world, it's not a part of what you get engaged in — our homeless are here and there, but do we see them all that much? And if we see them on the street, it's usually an adult. We don't realize children are a part of that population."

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