A Safe Harbor

By Richard Seven — November 01, 2001 10 min read
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In Seattle, a school that offers homeless kids some stability weathers changes of its own.

As Seattle’s morning traffic creeps along on a sunny Thursday in September, a school bus pulls up to a stop not far from the heart of the city. Lindsey, a 5- year-old with big brown eyes and pigtails, awaits. When the doors swing open, she climbs aboard and settles into a front seat across from the driver, her gleaming white tennis shoes dangling far above the floor.

Lindsey is riding her first bus on its way to her first school. Sporting a pink sweatshirt, blue jeans, and a gaping hole where her two front teeth used to be, she looks every bit the typical kindergartner. But she’s not: She’s been picked up from a homeless shelter where she and her parents (who asked that their last names not be used) have lived for the past two weeks. Before that, they spent a month at an urban encampment known as “tent city.” The clothes Lindsey is wearing were donated by church parishioners.

But the smiling Lindsey doesn’t let on about the chaos her life has been since her dad lost his truck-driving job and the family lost its apartment. Living in the tent city, she says, was like camping, though campfires and cooking were not allowed. People ate what they could get from volunteers, which sometimes meant doughnuts for dinner. Now, because of shelter rules, she and her parents have three months to find a new home. So while dad does temporary labor and mom fills out housing applications, Lindsey goes to school.

The bus rumbles past the Space Needle and stops at a downtown shelter to pick up six more kids. The rowdy ones bound to the back; the shy and little ones stay up front. After 40 minutes, the bus has stopped at low-income housing projects, subsidized apartments, shelters, and a day-care facility. It finally arrives in front of a brand-new brick building on a quiet city corner.

There is no sign out front, and the doors are locked. This is First Place, a nonprofit K-6 school for children whose families are homeless or struggling with serious personal and financial problems. The location is kept secret because most of the school’s 70 children come from single-parent families disrupted by domestic violence. The goal is to give these kids a stable environment, intensive academic and emotional support, help moving to a regular school, and a shot at a secure future.

“These children carry psychological trauma,” says the school’s executive director, Doreen Cato, who was once homeless herself. “A lot of them respond to things like adults, but they begin to feel helpless. In some ways, they feel responsible. Imagine going into class with 30 other children, opening a book, and trying to concentrate when you’re wondering whether you’ll be living someplace else after school. You’re lost.”

Debate is building over whether such schools should exist at all. Many homeless advocates see them as a form of segregation that stigmatizes children.

First Place was founded in 1989. Until this year, though, Washington state’s only school for homeless kids operated in an old, cramped preschool. Now, thanks to a $5.5 million fund-raising campaign—including $1 million from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation—it’s housed in a pleasant three-story building replete with a cutting edge computer system.

But now that First Place has moved into its roomy new space, debate builds over whether such schools should exist at all. Many homeless advocates see them as a form of segregation that stigmatizes children and deprives them of a quality education. Accordingly—and to better comply with a federal law that promotes mainstreaming—First Place is working to alter its role. Starting this school year, it plans to serve a broader population, including kids whose families are on the brink of losing homes. It’s also entering a more formal relationship with the Seattle School District.

Cato, who likens adjusting the school’s mission to turning a big ship, is determined to see First Place thrive. In fact, she’s working to expand the school to serve more grades and hold on to kids longer than the typical four or five months. Despite these changes, however, Cato vows that First Place will always give priority to homeless kids. The school’s students sometimes move as many as nine times a year, she notes, and have a multitude of needs that can’t necessarily be addressed by the typical public school.

Lindsey’s mom, for one, is glad her daughter is learning alongside other homeless kids. “If Lindsey says she’s from a shelter or used to live in a tent,” says Debbie, “the other kids won’t make fun of her.”

Lindsey is blissfully oblivious to her school’s shifting mission as she and other students munch on a free breakfast of pizza bagels, fruit, and milk in a second-floor lunchroom. For kids living in motels and shelters, this chance to hang out with other children is the best part of the day. As Debbie notes, with all the disruptions Lindsey’s faced, she doesn’t get to be around kids her own age much.

So far, school is working out fine for Lindsey. In fact, Debbie is amazed by her daughter’s stamina. She’s picked up just before 9 each morning and gets home around 5 p.m. Then, after dinner, she sits down to work on assignments with Mom.

‘If Lindsey says she’s from a shelter or used to live in a tent, the other kids won’t make fun of her.’

A First Place Mother

For now, First Place is as close to normal as Lindsey can get. “We are going to have to move again,” says Debbie, “but I didn’t want to keep moving her each time we did. I wanted her to be in the same school for at least a year.”

After breakfast, Lindsey plops down on the classroom floor. The walls are plastered with bright pictures of objects, from an apple to a zipper, labeled in bold letters. She and the other kids encircle Brianna, who was randomly selected as the day’s “special person.” They spell her name in a cheer led by teacher Jennifer Hurley-"B-R-I-A-N-N-A!” The exercise is meant to boost the girl’s self-esteem and engage the other kids. But it’s also a way to teach letters to children who have few academic skills. Most First Place students arrive well behind their age group, and teachers and volunteers try to provide as much one-on-one attention as possible.

After Brianna soaks up the spotlight, the children take turns talking about themselves and displaying items they’ve collected. Sometimes kids bring most of what they own to school. Lindsey is particularly proud of the pink backpack she got from a church. Another girl exhibits a small box of crayons and markers that First Place gave her.

The session unravels, though, when one boy starts hanging on another youngster. Hurley quietly tells him to back up and sit straight. He ignores her at first, but she insists that he comply, and he eventually does. Hurley, 25, has a tranquil, calming presence, and she keeps a tight rein on the children. “A lot of these kids don’t have structure at home or goals, so they think they can come here and do whatever they want,” she says. “I let them know how it is going to be and what I expect.”

Though keeping her students focused is a challenge, Hurley values her job at First Place. “I’ve always wanted to work with low-income kids,” she explains. “I guess it started when, for a senior project in high school, I volunteered at a food bank. It opened my eyes to another part of the world I never saw. I think it’s important to show these kids that people care that they learn.”

Much of First Place’s work actually happens outside the classroom, where stable environments for students are crucial. The school helps provide housing, job opportunities, and training, including parenting classes. “We try to enroll the whole family, not just the child,” says Gene Harris, First Place’s director of family stabilization.

Josephine Howell, whose four children have attended the school, appreciates the assistance she received as she moved from motels to vans to spare bedrooms. “They helped me get housing, but what they really did was challenge me,” says Howell, who still has one child at First Place but now has a job and a four-bedroom home. “They ask, ‘What do you want?’ You tend to say what sounds best, but . . . they get you to be realistic with yourself and learn to not just get housing, but maintain it.”

First Place also helps smooth transitions for former students who’ve moved on to regular schools. Generally, kids haven’t stayed at the facility for more than 20 weeks: Some leave because they’ve found a permanent home; others need the special resources only public schools can afford. First Place makes sure that a relocated child is provided with, among other things, bus transportation or that a disabled child gets the right equipment.

Most First Place students arrive well behind their age group, and teachers and volunteers try to provide as much one-on-one attention as possible.

These efforts are supported primarily by grants and fund raising—80 percent of the school’s budget comes from private donations. But First Place does receive some money from the school district, and Cato hopes to get funding from the U.S. Department of Education next school year. That’s where the need to comply with federal legislation comes in. The 1987 Stewart B. McKinney Act stipulates that schools receiving federal funds must integrate homeless kids with other children and provide them with equal educational opportunities.

By working more formally with the public schools and expanding its student body beyond homeless kids, First Place may be considered an alternative school within the district, says Cato. These changes, she believes, will ensure the school’s compliance with the McKinney law and act as a stabilizing force for students. If First Place serves a mix of children, Cato explains, students can stay for a year or longer; if the school were just for homeless kids, they’d be required to move to a regular school as quickly as possible.

Many activists would like to see the approximately 40 homeless schools across the country simply close their doors.

Still, many activists would like to see the approximately 40 homeless schools across the country simply close their doors. Barbara Duffield, executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless, praises the hard work done by First Place, but she’d prefer that the facility serve only as a family- support and community-outreach arm of the district. Former homeless schools elsewhere have already made the switch.

Duffield claims there’s no need for First Place because public schools are able to meet homeless kids’ needs with appropriate transportation, counseling, and other services. And those schools address special concerns, she adds, while also providing an opportunity to fit in. “Grouping children, placing them apart from their peers because of housing status, can be stigmatizing,” Duffield explains. She also believes the academic standards at such schools are lacking.

While Cato agrees that some homeless schools are less than ideal—sometimes amounting to just a classroom or two in a shelter or church—First Place is focused on academic achievement. No one can argue with the concept of mainstreaming, she admits, but homeless children are in dire need of individualized care coming from teachers attuned to the extraordinary pressures they face.

Like Cato, Josephine Howell thinks that a special school for homeless kids makes sense. “First Place understands what these children are going through,” she says. “When a child stares off in space or doesn’t answer, it’s not because they are trying to be difficult. A lot of time they are wondering where they are going to be that night. When we finally got our place, I told [my kids] they could unpack, but they didn’t for a long time.”

Five-year-old Lindsey is certainly happy to be at First Place. The shelter is boring, she says, because there are no kids to play with. Of course, the shelter is better than the encampment. “It got cold,” she says of living in a tent. “When it rained, I got wet, and my dolly did, too.”


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