Homeless shelters send kids to school; 1,470 attending classes in Fort Worth, Texas


FORT WORTH, Texas -- At 6: 30 a.m., tiny voices begin to resonate inside the Presbyterian Night Shelter. Thirty-nine children have slept there overnight, and more than a dozen are getting ready for school.

There is no smell of brewing coffee or sizzling bacon. Instead, the odor of sweat, stale cigarettes and dirty mop water lingers in the shelter hidden on a side street east of downtown Fort Worth.

For reasons as varied as their appearance, more and more children and teen-agers are being raised in homeless shelters once occupied mostly by men on skid row. Educators in Fort Worth and nationwide are reaching into the shelters and pulling those children into classrooms.

In the 1998-1999 school year, the Fort Worth school district counted 1,470 homeless children among its students. There are more this year.

"The average age of a homeless person is now 9," said June Davis, the district's guidance program coordinator. "I am amazed at how resilient these children are. They tend to make the best out of the situation they are in."

The number of children housed at the night shelter recently swelled to 54, forcing the staff to rearrange the cots in the cavernous sleeping rooms.

"We can't make any sense of this," said John Suggs, head of the area's largest walk-in shelter, which serves more than 500 people. "The only thing we can think of is that people are trying to stabilize their lives now so that their children can go to school."

Despite a booming economy, children end up on the streets, often with a parent, because of a shortage of affordable rental housing, a parent's addiction to drugs or alcohol, or an attempt to escape an abusive family member.

Cut off from familiar surroundings, friends and relatives, homeless children can become alienated. They can't have sleep-overs with classmates. They rarely join Scouting groups or after-school teams, and they have no comfortable place to do homework.

They live in uncertainty.

But just as a desperate environment can breed apathy and cynicism, it can also produce remarkable grit.

Pam Nesmith wipes the sleep from her eyes and flips on a light switch inside a mint-green room, not much bigger than a walk-in closet, on the second floor of the Presbyterian Night Shelter.

Stretched out on a narrow mattress, their feet draped over each other's legs, are Jeffrey and Ashley, Nesmith's 9-year-old twins. Nesmith came to Texas from Massachusetts, and the three have been in and out of shelters since the twins were born.

"Time to get up and get ready for school," Nesmith says, nudging them.

Ashley sweeps her strawberry-blond hair from her cheek, sits up and greets her mother with an angelic smile. Her brother needs more coaxing.

For Nesmith, the chore of rousing her children and getting them off to school is the same as for any parent at home.

But there, the similarities end.

The twins just started third grade at Van Zandt-Guinn Elementary School. Through the school district's homeless program, the two have received blue-and-white uniforms and a package of underwear and socks.

"Get dressed now so you can go and brush your teeth," says Nesmith, who gets the private room because she is on the shelter's staff. The children are unfazed by the sounds of a resident vomiting in the hallway below.

Ashley heads to the bathroom. Wearing too-small sneakers, she walks past the coughing and scratching vagrants waking up on the men's side of the shelter.

There's no bubble bath, just weary mothers gently brushing tangled hair.

The school bus will come soon. Waiting along Cypress Street, both children ignore the people sleeping on the sidewalks. And when the school bus stops, the twins run to it and plop down next to other children just picked up from the Union Gospel Mission down the street.

Nesmith worries about the teasing her children may endure.

"You know how kids can be cruel," she says, waving at the bus in her tattered cotton nightgown. "They tease them and call them shelter kids. It isn't fair."

When the children leave, Nesmith's smile does, too.

Monday morning. The 300 students file into the hallways as if their shoes were made of lead; the weekend seems to have drained their energy.

A breakfast of toast, cereal and chocolate milk in the school cafeteria raises their energy a notch.

In uniforms, there is no way to distinguish homeless students from others. Educators want it that way.

"We don't want these students singled out," Davis says.

The school bell rings, and the students, pre-kindergarten through fifth grade, walk single file to their homerooms.

Ashley and Jeffrey are in adjacent rooms. Jeffrey, at least for now, is tired of his sister's company. She has been pouting all morning, since she fell down the stairs at the shelter.

Ashley reports the mishap to her teacher, Mayme Macon, who sends her to the school nurse.

Gregorita Smith examines a painful spot on Ashley's back and notices that insect bites cover her back. She also has bites on her ankle and arms.

"I've seen a lot of things," Smith says later. "The children come in here with ringworm, ant bites, lice and a number of other things. One kid came in complaining about his leg hurting, and I found a scorpion on him, which scared me to death."

Smith said she often serves as the primary medical caregiver for the homeless students.

Ashley returns to class, and the learning begins.

Jeffrey, an introvert, appears most comfortable completing his schoolwork in the computer lab.

"Line the horses up in order," the computer screen reads.

Click. Click. Click. The task is done.

Jeffrey smiles.

Macon, who has been teaching at Van Zandt-Guinn for more than 20 years, says meeting the educational needs of homeless children is a challenge.

"I never know how long they will be with us," says Macon, a certified reading recovery teacher. "One student came to my classroom, and he had already lived in seven different states."

Some homeless students are in school one day and gone the next. Others show up in the middle of the year.

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