Homeless schoolchildren face taunts, obstacles

THE BALTIMORE SUN

To millions of television viewers, "Homey" is the homeless clown on the popular show "In Living Color," an outlandish character whose antics keep them laughing.

But to Keysha Smith, who lives in a shelter for the homeless in Baltimore, the name is a heartbreaking reminder of the taunting she endures from her schoolmates.

"They make fun of me," said the 11-year-old, casting her eyes down. "They call me 'Homey.' "

A friendly girl with expressive brown eyes, Keysha is one of some 4,000 Maryland children -- nearly half of them from the Baltimore area -- who travel every day from a shelter to a public school.

It is a journey filled with obstacles in the path of their education. Many suffer from poor self-esteem, a combination of ridicule from other youngsters and the trials of growing up.

Many also drift from school to school as their families move, and not surprisingly, their performance in class often suffers.

Keysha, who is in the fifth grade, has already attended six elementary schools. But some homeless children attend that many schools in a year.

For such children, one of life's biggest challenges will be to stay in school and get a chance to escape the cycle of poverty they have been caught in through no fault of their own.

Tomorrow, the state Department of Education will sponsor a conference at the Sheraton Towson on addressing the needs of homeless children. "Educating Homeless Children and Youth: Making a Real Commitment" will bring together educators, shelter providers, advocates and parents.

"The purpose is to heighten the awareness and sensitivities of the participants to the needs of homeless children -- to share ideas about what's going on in the state and things that can be done to enhance shelter and school partnerships," said Peggy Jackson-Jobe, the state's coordinator of education for homeless children.

Keysha Smith's life provides some insights into who these children are and how they cope with the situation they face.

Her mother, Cassandra Smith, is a budding cartoonist with six children, who sells her work at church fairs.

Her father, Louis Smith, works in the construction business but has been laid off during the recession.

Keysha, her mother, and her brothers Omar, 13, and Isaac, 12, have been homeless since July 1989 when Mrs. Smith, 37, decided she could no longer live with her husband and moved from their home in West Baltimore to a shelter.

Her three oldest boys live with relatives.

Mrs. Smith and her children spent anywhere from one night to two months at four shelters around Baltimore before coming to ** their current home, the city's Springhill shelter, in November 1989.

Springhill is a transitional shelter that allows families to stay for up to 18 months while they try to get their lives together and find housing.

At Springhill, near Druid Hill Park in West Baltimore, Keysha and her family share a small, bright but crowded one-bedroom apartment, one of 33 in the converted school building. Omar and Isaac share the bedroom, while Mrs. Smith and Keysha sleep on a bed and couch in the living room.

Keysha spends a lot of time in the downstairs playroom, where her mother works watching other children. There's a deck of "Old Maid" cards to play with, along with building blocks, bright pictures on the wall, a television and a Nintendo game.

The most striking thing about Keysha is the difference between the girl who lives in the shelter and the one who attends the nearby Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School.

Outside school, Keysha is lively, chatty and at ease with herself. She and her brothers are among the older children at the shelter, and the younger ones look up to them.

She often has a small child in her arms, wiping off a runny nose, combing hair or just playing games.

But in her fifth-grade class of 34 students, Keysha works quietly and alone.

She raises her hand to answer questions throughout the day, but rarely talks with her classmates.

"We were worried about her for a while, but she is better now,said Vivian Banks, her teacher. "Sometimes she is talkative, but generally she is withdrawn."

While she likes Mrs. Banks, Keysha makes no secret of how she feels about the school.

"I hate my school," she said, adding that the only things she likes about it are her reading lessons and dance classes.

Children everywhere, particularly at Keysha's age, will sometimes single out one student for ridicule.

Keysha believes she is that child. She doesn't understand why, and wonders if it is because her mother buys most of her clothes from thrift shops.

"It makes me feel sad," Keysha said. "The only friend that I have that goes to that school lives here."

She says nothing to children who pick on her but internalizes her feelings. "I just get mad," she said.

Mrs. Banks said Keysha will sometimes tell her that children are making fun of her.

"We try to nip that in the bud," the teacher said.

On difficult days, Keysha will try to talk to the school counselor. She learned to talk about her feelings during a particularly tough period in her life when she was 9.

Her mother sought help for Keysha then after her daughter's behavior became increasingly alarming. "She would get a knife and say she wanted to kill herself," Mrs. Smith said.

The final straw came in January 1990 and landed Keysha in University Hospital for a three-week psychiatric evaluation. "She laid down in the street and said she hoped a car would run over her," Mrs. Smith said.

Keysha remembers her stay in the hospital as a time she spent exploring her feelings. "I just talked a lot," she said.

Ms. Jackson-Jobe, the state education official, said self-esteem problems are typical for children living in shelters. They are caused, she believes, by having to deal with adult-sized problems.

She remembers talking to a group of homeless children whose conversation centered on who was put out of the shelter for drugs, who was drinking and who had been abused.

"It really hit home," Ms. Jackson-Jobe said. "They are losing their childhood."

The way Keysha is treated by other children at school is not unique to King Elementary or that community.

State officials who work with homeless children say they often report being ridiculed by other youngsters.

"I can't let my friends know where I'm living. They won't understand. They will make jokes," said one 13-year-old boy who lives in a shelter.

"The children at school called me shelter boy," a 7-year-old boy said.

"I don't bring my friends to the shelter," a girl, 9, said. "They might laugh at me."

To address such problems, a session at tomorrow's seminar will explore ways adults can help students be sensitive to those who live in shelters.

But low self-esteem is only one hurdle facing homeless children. Because they frequently change schools, homeless children often have trouble keeping up academically.

Ms. Jackson-Jobe said the state has not studied these children's grades or test scores, but anecdotal evidence suggests that they tend to struggle in school or fail to reach their potential.

Keysha isn't failing in school. But her mother, her teacher and Keysha herself say she should be doing much better.

King Elementary grades children on a scale from excellent to unsatisfactory. Mrs. Banks said Keysha's grades are generally satisfactory but she is behind in math.

Another problem often is a lack of extra academic help for homeless children.

"School records are not catching up to them," Ms. Jackson-Jobe explained.

"Because they are moving around so much even the brightest child can lose something. They need some type of tutorial assistance on a daily basis."

Some tutors do come to Springhill and other shelters to help Keysha and children like her. But advocates for the homeless say many more are needed throughout the state so every homeless child can get help every day.

Ms. Jackson-Jobe also argues that even if children lose the stability of a home, they should be able to maintain the stability of remaining in their neighborhood schools.

Keysha's mother chose to send her to King Elementary because it is less than a block from Springhill. "But 99 percent of the parents would choose to have their children remain at their home school," Ms. Jackson-Jobe said.

"The law says that homeless parents must have the option osending their child to their home school or the school by the shelter," she said. But most of those parents can't afford to provide transportation to their home school if it is not nearby.

Ms. Jackson-Jobe and advocates for the homeless supported state legislation that would have provided money for busing students from shelters to their neighborhood schools.

It failed in the General Assembly this year, but advocates will try again next year.

Only a small number of schools in Maryland regularly provide transportation for children living in a shelter to their home school. The exception is Baltimore, which provides transportation for any student, Ms. Jackson-Jobe said.

While living in a shelter puts obstacles in the way of education, it does not mean homeless students are without a foundation for success.

Like any parent, Mrs. Smith has high hopes for her children. She wants them to graduate from high school and college, and she is home every night making sure Keysha and her brothers eat properly and do their homework.

Religion is important to the family. Keysha says her prayers at every meal, even before being treated to a burger at McDonald's.

Mrs. Smith said problems with her husband are being resolved, and she hopes the family can find a home where they can all be together, perhaps by the time school starts in September.

But for every homeless child whose family gets back together, there will be another to take his or her place, said Norma Pinette, executive director of Action for the Homeless, an advocacy group.

"No one loses their job one day and are homeless the next," shsaid.

"With the recession that has hit so many people so hard, I believe there will be a growing number."

Tracking homeless students

During the 1989-1990 school year, 3,439 of Maryland's 7,131 homeless children were of school age, 6-16 years old. Another 487 of them were kindergarten age.

.. .. .. .. .. .Total number.. .. .. .. .. .. .. Number of

.. .. ..of homeless children.. .. .. .. homeless ages 6-16

.. .. in metro jurisdictions

Baltimore.. .. .. .. ..2,051.. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .1,061

Baltimore County.. .. .. 696.. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. 376

Anne Arundel County.. .. 383.. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. 159

Howard County.. .. .. .. 227.. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. 101

Carroll County.. .. .. . 124.. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .55

Harford County.. .. .. ... 2.. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. ..2

Montgomery County.. .. 1,170.. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. 503

Prince George's Co.. .. .850.. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. 482

Source: Maryland Department of Education

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