High school and middle school are awkward enough: a maelstrom of fashion, cliques, crushes, zits, athletics, academics, all the drama and sanctuary of close friends. Now imagine that on top of it all, you are homeless. Your family is moving in and out of shelters and hotels as you try to do your homework, as you try to make friends, as you try to grow up.
It doesn't take much imagination for Justin Fontaine Jr. to picture just such a scenario: Last year, as an eighth-grader at North Carroll Middle School in Manchester, he lived it every day for five months. Justin was living with his parents and seven siblings in a room at the Boston Inn in Westminster and rode an improvised bus route with elementary school students to get to school. The bus ride home took most of the afternoon.
"Excuse my language, but honestly, it was hell," he said. "The feeling of knowing that when you go home, you are not going to go home to an actual house, you're going to a hotel room or a bunk in a shelter. It was overwhelming."
The school administrators knew — and almost smothered Justin with concern and sympathy, he said — but he kept the secret from his friends and classmates.
"When somebody would say, 'Can I come to your house?' and I would say, 'No,' and they would ask why," Justin said, "I couldn't tell them because I couldn't stand their finding out."
Justin's older sister Sheniqua had trouble keeping her family's domestic situation a secret. A senior at North Carroll High School during the time her family was living in the Boston Inn, she said the questions from her friends eventually forced her to come out with the truth.
"At first they were supportive — they felt bad for me," Sheniqua said. "But you know how seniors go to senior week? I was invited before they knew I was living in the hotel, but after they found out, they assumed I wouldn't have money to pay for my part of a hotel room, and they kicked me out and said I couldn't go. I actually am not friends with any of those people I told anymore."
Not an isolated incident
It might be comforting to say that Justin's and Sheniqua's experiences were an isolated one, but a significant number of students in Carroll County Public Schools deal with homelessness or housing insecurity. According to Katherine Green, supervisor of pupil personnel and student services for Carroll County Public Schools, there were 168 students the school system identified as homeless in the 2013-2014 school year, with 41 in high schools, 24 in middle schools, 96 in elementary schools and 7 in other CCPS programs. That was of a total enrollment of 29,500.
As of Dec. 9, there have been 97 homeless students identified in Carroll County Public Schools in the new school year, according to Green.
Getting a firm grip on the number of Carroll students dealing with one form of homelessness or another is difficult, Green said. Such students are identified by pupil personnel workers in the school system, she said, but the initial identification of students who should be interviewed and possibly identified as homeless often depends on the students themselves or their parents. This leads to likely underreporting and undercounting, especially among older students.
"All of our data is driven by self-reporting," Green said. "I think age has an effect on reporting. Teens are well aware of the social stigma and don't want to share that information while younger children may not understand all of that. They may come into the classroom and just say, 'We didn't have anything to eat last night,' or, 'We slept in the car.' "
On the other hand, counting of homeless students might well provide a better picture of the true degree of homelessness and housing insecurity in Carroll than does the usual figure provided by the Carroll County Circle of Caring — a partnership between Human Services Programs of Carroll County and other homelessness advocates — which conducts an attempted in-person count of homeless people annually on one day in the winter. The 2014 count in January found 124 total homeless people, including 12 families with a total of 23 children under the age of 18.
The 2015 count is scheduled for Jan. 29, Green said.
"It's hard to find people because if it is really cold, they will come off the street. It's hard to find encampments, and it's just one day," she said. "We have students 180 days a year. We are seeing all the symptoms that can show that they are homeless and they are coming to us and asking for help because it is a safe place to the children … There may be some duplication, but you could add those figures together and still probably not have an accurate picture of the homeless. A lot of people just don't come forward, and you don't know that they are homeless."
A homeless student is legally defined as "a school-aged child who lacks a fixed, regular or adequate nighttime place of abode [or] a school-aged child in a shelter or a public/private place not designed for or ordinarily used as a regular sleeping accommodation for human beings," Green said.
This means that the homeless student count includes not just those students who are in a shelter, but also those living in the homes of extended family or family friends.
While a seventh-grader who is sleeping on Aunt Susie's couch for a semester might not be included in the average perception of a homeless child, even small disruptions in routine can have negative consequences, according to Barbara Duffield, policy director for the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth.
Research has shown that children who experience homelessness experience more health, social and learning problems, effects Duffield said can compound and lead to poor academic performance and a greater chance they will struggle with homelessness as adults.
"The child's brain is growing, and all that moving around is really impacting their ability to be successful as adults," she said. "A young person that was homeless is 87 percent more likely to drop out of school."
Nationwide, the number of homeless children has crept upward even as the number of homeless adults and veterans has trended downward, according to the National Center on Family Homelessness.
In a November report titled "America's Youngest Outcasts," the center found that there were about 2.5 million children, or one in 30, who had experienced homelessness at some point in 2013, according to U.S. Census and U.S. Department of Education data. This was up from slightly fewer than 1.5 million children, or one in 50, who were homeless in 2006.
Duffield said that while focusing on homeless adults and veterans is important, national and local initiatives that fail to address homelessness in families with children risk perpetuating a cycle that could erase short-term gains toward ending homelessness.
"By not prioritizing kids, they are making the next generation of the homeless," she said.
A difficult diagnosis
There are many causes for homelessness, and each story is inherently unique to that person, but according to Green, there are some discernible patterns in the families that struggle with children in the school system.
"We see two main themes. One are the people that have fallen on hard times — they lose jobs; they get sick; something unexpected happens and your finances are hit," Green said. "The other thing we see are families living in poverty, struggling to make ends meet, and they may fall in and out of homelessness over time. Many people are living paycheck to paycheck here — they have just a small savings. If you lose a job or have a health issue and have medical bills, it can really take a toll on you."
The Fontaine family's troubles track closely with Green's assessment. It all began in 2010, when they received a letter informing them that their landlord was no longer paying the mortgage on the four-bedroom town home they were renting in the 1500 block of Main St. in Hampstead, according to Sherine Fontaine, the family matriarch.
"We were sending rent, but we didn't know who we were sending the rent to," Sherine said.
The Fontaines are a large family, Sherine and her husband, Justin Sr., at the head, and eight children ranging in age from 4 to 23. They are not an easy group to move on short notice, and the Fontaines were forced to move into a new home in Hampstead with a $1,500 monthly rent that Sherine said was far from ideal. They were doing OK at first, but then Justin Sr. wound up in the hospital for two weeks and they fell behind, she said.
"That was a downward spiral from there," Sherine said. "We ended up being out of the place, and there was no shelter for us here in Maryland … We ended up having to go up to Pennsylvania to a shelter across the border."
Space in Carroll County shelters, especially for a large family, can be pretty limited, according to Carina Canon, associate director of shelter and housing for Human Services Programs of Carroll County, which operates five shelters. Oftentimes there is a waiting list.
"We do have a family shelter that has 23 beds; this is where [the Fontaine family] falls," Canon said. "We sometimes have two beds, three beds available. A family of 10 would be a challenge … There are times that we cannot immediately meet the needs for someone asking for help."
The Fontaines lived together in the shelter from August until October of 2012, according to Sherine.
Eventually, with the help of some money from a friend of the family and from HSP, Sherine said they were able to pay the security deposit for a town home to rent in the Roberts Field neighborhood in Hampstead that October. They were still getting by on one meager income, however, and before long the Fontaines eventually fell behind on the rent on their Roberts Field town home. By August 2013, Sherine said they had been evicted and found themselves at the Westminster Boston Inn.
"It's like a hole that you try to dig out of that you can't dig out of," she said.
The high cost of simply staying afloat
HSP does more than operate shelters, according to Executive Director Cindy Parr; the nonprofit also invests a lot of resources in preventing homelessness and rehousing those who have become homeless. The cost of housing, she has found — as have the Fontaines — is perhaps the largest hurdle for families living on the edge.
"The fair market rent in Carroll County … is $984 [per month] for a one-bedroom, $1,232 for a two-bedroom, $1,574 for a three-bedroom and $1,713 for a four-bedroom," Parr said, citing statistics from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. "It makes it more clear how difficult it can be to afford housing if you are someone that is struggling with money or you are working a job, or two, that is part-time in nature or low wage. It is difficult, if not impossible."
Section 8 housing assistance through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development would have helped the Fontaine family, and according to Sherine, they did apply for help in 2009 and got placed on a waiting list. This, however, is where the Fontaines' story gets more complicated. When their number came up at HUD, they were denied for the same reason that Sherine is not able to get a job: Her residency is undocumented.
"I wasn't born here — I was born in the West Indies — but all my schooling was here. I have been here since the age of 3," she said. "My grandmother was my legal guardian, and she passed away when I was 7 years old."
Sherine's aunt took over raising Sherine and tried to obtain legal status for her, but she died when Sherine was 16. Sherine has no record of any legal efforts on her behalf from either relative, and embarking on the legal process to obtain documentation has thus far proven too difficult and expensive.
"I need help filling out the forms because there is so much jargon I don't understand, and I don't want to mess something up," Sherine said. "It's extremely expensive, and with the one income, we can't really just take the money to do that."
The complexity of the process and the filing fees are often a stumbling block for people in Sherine's position, according to Rick Moore, an immigration lawyer with the Moore Law Group in Timonium.
"It appears she would be eligible for the [Deferred Action Childhood Arrival] that was announced by Obama in 2012, since she arrived in the U.S. before June 15, 2007, and was under age 16 when she did so," he said. "The [United States Citizenship and Immigration Services] filing fee for the [Deferred Action Childhood Arrival] is $465."
Getting approval under the Deferred Action Childhood Arrival would not grant Sherine a green card or citizenship, Moore said, but she could get a Social Security number and a work authorization valid for three years.
As for Section 8 assistance, Sherine said that while she had initially been told her undocumented status prevented the family from getting help, she then learned that their application was invalidated for not filing certain piece of paperwork — paperwork Sherine said was not filed because they thought they had already been disqualified.
A spokesman for HUD said the official policy is to offer assistance to families like the Fontaines, factoring out the amount of money that would go toward any members with undocumented residency. Sherine said the demands of navigating multiple bureaucracies compounds the burden of a family balancing on the edge of solvency.
"It is really hard when you don't know the system and then you go to get help," Sherine said. "When you do find out what you think is available to you, then you go to apply for it and it is totally something different. 'Where do I go, what do I do?' "
No easy solutions
If the problems caused by family and childhood homelessness are clear, the solutions are anything but, with myriad projects and programs making inroads here and there, but no magic bullet with which to effect dramatic change.
Within Carroll County Public Schools, Green said a wide array of assistance is provided to students identified as homeless, including free school supplies, clothing or counseling, as well as reaching off campus to coordinate further help for students and families.
"Carroll County Public Schools partners with a variety of community agencies to refer families to and provide for services, both public and nonprofit agencies. In particular, CCPS partners with Human Services Programs to provide tutoring and counseling services to students in the homeless shelters," Green said. "We also partner with HSP to arrange transportation for homeless students at the shelters. We partner with the Maryland Food Bank to run school food pantry programs in 18 of our schools."
HSP is one of the many partners in the Circle of Caring, a volunteer group consisting of government agencies, nonprofits and individual advocates dedicated to finding solutions to homelessness in Carroll, said Madeline Morey, director of Carroll County Citizens Services and a member of the circle. The circle has a 10-point plan for ending homelessness in Carroll County and has launched a number of initiatives, Morey said, though many are still in their infancy.
"As part of the Circle of Caring, Kathy Green from the school system, myself and Cindy Parr and many people are working together on several different initiatives. We have a partnership with Economic Development to try and bring in more jobs, especially entry-level jobs and other types of jobs that can help support families that are maybe temporarily out of work," Morey said. "The Circle Of Caring mission is to reduce the number of homeless. Some of those factors we do have ability to change, and others we can't, but anything we are able to have an impact on, that is currently our goal."
There is no one thing people in the Carroll community can do to help ease the struggle of their homeless or near-homeless neighbors, but according to Morey, volunteering with the Circle of Caring, donating to help with Citizen Services housing programs or — for business owners — offering jobs, apprenticeships or positions with workforce housing are just a few ways people can help make a difference.
If nothing else, Parr said, simply acknowledging that there is a problem and allowing the information to inform decisions is an important first step in effecting any kind of real change.
"Ending homelessness requires partnerships, so all members of the community will accept that there is a problem and then work together to find a viable solution. Homelessness is a community issue; once gaps are identified, the community must embrace a plan to bring resolve," she said. "If our partnership community cannot deliver a concise message to our decision-makers, we will continue to have issues. I think the best thing [people] can do is ask questions, be alert and not afraid to speak up."
A much-needed leg up — for now
Today the Fontaine family is once again housed in a home of its own, having moved into another Hampstead town home on Jan. 7. It's been a huge relief — and a refuge — for the whole family, even if they continue to walk a financial tightrope, according to Sherine.
"We're still in Roberts Field. We found a place on Sycamore," she said. "It's still rough, it's still tight … I thank God we are still here … We don't know what tomorrow will bring. We're taking it one day at a time."
Carroll County Breaking News
For now, each day they wake up in their house instead of a hotel is blessing, according to Sheniqua.
"Everything is way better than it was before. Nothing is perfect. Me and my sisters are all working to help my dad since there are so many of us," she said. "I just look to God for everything"
Justin, too, has found a new sense of stability.
"I feel better. I feel like I can fit in with others," he said. "When people talk about their homes, I can say something."
However tenuous their situation, Sherine said that for now, their family has a place with roots and meaning beyond the mere shelter they had found in the hotel.
"I remember a lot of times we would go to church and we would say, 'OK, we're going back to the hotel.' We would never say, 'We're going back home,'" she said. "Here, we're home."
Reach staff writer Jon Kelvey at 410-857-3317 or email@example.com.