By Robert Nott Santa Fe New Mexican
SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) – Zamir Crispin usually doesn’t have a quiet place to do homework. She shares a small room in a friend’s three-room apartment with her two sisters, her mother and her father.
The 15-year-old Capital High School student is technically homeless. But she sees no shame in her situation.
“It would be embarrassing not to talk about ourselves and support each other,” the Spanish-speaking teen said.
She does at least have a warm, safe place to be at night, and the not-too-distant likelihood of moving with her family to a trailer they recently purchased.
Other homeless students may not be so fortunate. They sleep outdoors under a bridge or in an arroyo, or in the back seat of a car, or on a mattress on the floor of a relative’s kitchen.
If they’re lucky, they have a couch in someone else’s house. But as Israel Haros puts it, that’s still not an environment that’s conducive to healthy living or learning.
“It may seem that you’ve living in a home, but really you’re living on a couch,” said Haros, interim coordinator of Santa Fe Public Schools’ Adelante Program, which works to strengthen educational opportunities for homeless youth in the school system. “Some people say that 12 people living in three rooms is simply cultural. That’s not cultural – that’s poverty.”
Adelante estimates there are 1,220 homeless students in the district, about 9 percent of the total population. Those numbers are based on the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act definition of homelessness, which basically includes anyone who does not have a consistent or adequate place to sleep. The federal act, signed into law by President Ronald Reagan more than 20 years ago, provides funding for the homeless.
The National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth reported roughly 800,000 homeless students in the nation’s school system during the 2007-2008 school year.
In New Mexico, the number for the 2008-2009 school year was 8,380, said Joseph Sanchez, McKinney-Vento Homeless Education Program Coordinator for New Mexico’s Public Education Department.
“Every Santa Fe school has homeless students,” said homeless liaison Loretta Fernandez, who co-founded Adelante with coordinator Gaile Herling in 2003.
Ortiz Middle School has the highest number, 86 students, followed by Sweeney Elementary School, 82; Capital High School, 66; Cesar Chavez Elementary School, 61; and Santa Fe High School, 56. Acequia Madre Elementary School reports the fewest: 2.
These are just the numbers based on Adelante’s process of registering homeless students during a school year. Other homeless students may be in the system. They’re not invisible, but their living situation is.
“Sometimes we never find out what’s going on, especially with teens, who are too embarrassed to admit they are homeless,” said Herling, who is on sabbatical but will return to Adelante in August.
Do students hide the fact they are homeless?
“All the time,” Herling said.
Some students have a parent or parents who are incarcerated or dead. Others may come from broken homes where one parent was the victim of domestic violence. Still others enjoyed a seemingly normal life until an eviction notice or a foreclosure changed their living situation.
“They’re not always homeless in the sense that they’re lying on the grass,” explained Mary Cogen, a social worker at Santa Fe High School who works with homeless students. “They usually have unstable, chaotic situations where they spend a night with this parent, and then with this relative, and then this friend, and then in an arroyo, and then with another friend. It’s not a good situation.”
Adelante’s band of staff members and volunteers provides groceries, clothes and school supplies to registered homeless youth. Fernandez figures the organization has distributed about 800 backpacks of supplies this year.
On Thursday nights, Adelante hosts Juntos los Jueves, a community event that includes a free hot meal, clothes and books for students, a discussion on social issues impacting homeless youth, and free art classes taught by instructors from Fine Arts for Children and Teens.
Haros, who is overseeing Adelante in Herling’s absence, knows the drill well: He was a homeless child himself in California, sleeping on one couch after another in various locales.
He came to Santa Fe last year and entered the district’s B.F. Young Building on Camino Sierra Vista, where Adelante is housed, to inquire about getting a teaching license.
“I went into the wrong room,” he said, recalling how he inadvertently entered the Adelante office. “But it wasn’t the wrong room.”
Herling hired him to run Adelante in her absence.
Herling knew of one homeless youth who slept just outside his school’s property to ensure he would be on time every morning. Yet another, who was sleeping in a car with his mother and her newborn baby, found school to be a welcome relief from the nightly claustrophobia and uncertainty.
“It provides more of a (sense of) home for them, where they can get away from everything and come to a structured environment,” Sanchez said. “And in some cases, the only meals these students receive are at school.”
That doesn’t mean the students are doing well, academically speaking, as learning is often interrupted by an unexpected move.
“When a homeless student switches schools even if it costs him or her just a week it can equate to a whole semester of lost educational achievement,” Herling said.
Nationwide, according to a 2008 report by The National Center on Family Homelessness, only 48 percent of homeless children in grades three to 12 were proficient in reading and only 43 percent were proficient in math.
Though Haros said the notion the homeless are invariably bad students is a myth (“They come by and show us their report cards with A’s and B’s,” he explained), he acknowledged it’s tough to keep track of such statistics. Others in the system aren’t as optimistic.
“I’d be amazed to hear that many of them are doing well,” said Marty Gerber, who tutors homeless students at Youth Shelters. “Because they have such a checkered past through no fault of their own they just don’t have much of an academic background.”
He visits Youth Shelters three times a week for two hours a day and often spends that time going over the basics, like multiplication tables. The desire to improve is there, he said. “Virtually all of them want to know, want to learn, want to get better academically” but the odds are often against them.
Tita Gervers, director of the district’s Office of Student Wellness, agrees. “They do, statistically speaking, come in lower than most of our students, and the real reason is a lack of continuity in their education,” she said.
But they do learn different skills on the streets that don’t necessarily equate to better grades.
“Sometimes homeless kids are smarter; they learn survival skills that the rest of us don’t learn. When you know how to find food when you’re hungry or find a place to sleep when you don’t have a home well, those are skills most of the rest of us don’t have,” Gervers said.
“What is useful is to influence our policies both locally and nationally, because that’s going to have a long-term effect on the way we deal with homeless families and children,” Herling said.
“Without the public, things will just languish, because these kids have no voice except for our voices.”