Project HEART -- the Homeless Education and Resource Team -- works to keep homeless Manatee County students in school. It is a thankless job. Every time one child's problems seem to be solved, at least for the moment, another child pops up with even worse problems.
Most of the children HEART sees are in the first through fifth grades. They and their parents -- typically single moms -- often live in motels, cars, tents or travel trailers. Even more "double up" by moving in with friends or relatives. Some of the parents have substance abuse problems, but the most common problem is a lack of work skills, which typically means their incomes aren't large enough to pay rent and buy food, let alone buy clothes and school supplies. And other children Project HEART helps are living in shelters while they wait for foster care or a permanent foster home placement.
During the 2008-2009 school year, the most recent one for which complete figures are available, Manatee County had 2,094 children identified as homeless under the terms of the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, a federal law signed by Ronald Reagan in 1987 that says, among other things, that homeless children should have the same access to education as anyone else, and decrees funding for state and local programs that work to achieve this lofty goal. More provisions were tacked onto the child welfare portion of McKinney-Vento as part of the No Child Left Behind legislation signed into law by president George W. Bush, all with the same worthy goal: to give children from the most broken-down (and broke) broken homes as good a chance as possible to get through school and have a fighting chance of finding a decent job or going on to college.
Alarm clocks, lice shampoo, and school uniforms
A major problem faced by many homeless children, tardiness, often has an easy fix: give them alarm clocks. This is the sort of simple solution local HEART School Social Worker (and de facto project director) Deborah Bailey says she and her two coworkers, Veronica Bazan and Maria Casco, find for many problems faced by homeless students and their parents. After an eviction or mom's breakup with a boyfriend, it is not uncommon for children to be left with literally nothing; no toothpaste or toothbrush, no clothes other than what they're wearing, no shampoo, and no food. The HEART people are prepared to supply any or all of these necessties on an emergency basis.
Head lice are a common problem among homeless children. Local schools won't let an infested child attend class, so there are boxes of head lice shampoo on shelves at HEART's office at 6413 9th St. E., along with other very basic supplies most middle-class families wouldn't imagine anyone could possibly lack.
Hardly any low-income housing available
Bailey says the majority of local low-income housing is reserved for seniors and the disabled, leaving hardly any for single moms with children -- or worse, for the few single dads they see who are trying to raise families on little or no income. She also says that the group that is hardest to place in temporary housing is made up of teenage girls who are over 18 but are still in high school. They're too old for foster care, and Salvation Army can't accomodate them because their female-oriented "family" shelters are typically reserved for women with children. And, of course, young girls don't fit in either Salvation Army or other shelters that primarily serve single males.
Even direct rent help is hard to come by these days. "We call and ask for help with rent," Bailey says, "but all the agencies are out of money."
HEART's job is not to cure homelessness
Bailey says her job is not to find or eliminate the root causes of homelessness. She sticks to worrying about education-related problems caused by homelessness. She arranges transportation to and from school for kids who need it, with a special concentration on keeping kids in the same school as long as possible. She has emergency food to give out, along with grocery cards (which have replaced food stamps), money for physical exams, and money for activity fees so that homeless children can take part in extracurricular activities and join their classmates on field trips. In addition, HEART can and does furnish school supplies and, when required, school uniforms, along with soap, washcloths, shampoos, and other basic household supplies.
Setting up after-school tutoring is another major HEART activity. Over 20% of homeless students change schools within Manatee County each year, and another 20% transfer out of (or into) this county each year. Because of this mobility and the stress it causes, homeless students tend to fall behind in school more easily than most, and need special help to keep up with more settled classmates.
"When we're successful, we don't hear from them."
Deborah Bailey says this is a sad truth of working with project HEART: when a student graduates or his or her family finds a place to live and gets stabilized, there is rarely a "Thanks for your help" phone call. Rather, the HEART people no longer hear from that student -- and no longer hearing from a student could mean an out-of-district move, too, so it's often hard to say exactly how much effect HEART efforts have had on students' lives.
Bailey does, however, offer one consoling thought: "What would their lives be like if we weren't doing this?"