Children and Homelessness
If you have heard the song "Concrete Angel" by Martina McBride then you have heard a little about Dara. No, the song was not written about her, exactly, but it could very well have been. Only Dara's story had a much better ending.
"She walks to school with the lunch she packed; Nobody knows what she's holding back; Wearing the same dress she wore yesterday; She hides the bruises with the linen and lace"
Dara was a second grader when I met her. The first day of school that year, she came into my classroom with a dirty yellow dress on and worn ribbons in her hair. Her face was dirty and her blonde hair looked as if it had not been washed in weeks. Her blue eyes were bright with excitement, and her smile was as big as the room. I fell in love with her at first sight.
Dara was very hyperactive and had the attention span of a goldfish with ADHD...which was to say none at all! But she tried...bless her little heart, she tried. She was a very smart little girl, but with her attention span she never accomplished much. You could give her an assignment that should last for about five minutes and it would take her forever to complete it...When I would place the paper in front of her, she would forget it before it hit the table...she would across the room chasing dust particles in the sun...
She was always happy. Nothing could upset her or make her cry. She had the best sense of humor that I had ever seen in a girl as young as her. You could tease her and she would get it! She was fun to have in the class.
Because she was the only second grader I had that year, she and I would spend a lot of time alone. It was during these times that she opened up and told me about her life. It was a tough life for an adult, and she was only eight years old.
She told me that she lived with her mom and dad in a hotel room, then she changed her story and told me that it was really a station wagon that they lived in. Her dad would sleep in the front seat, mom in the middle seat and Dara would sleep in the back on a bed made from a sleeping bag and a pile of blankets. They would go to the Lord's Diner to eat supper most nights. Other nights they would eat food stolen by her dad from the grocery store. Other times they would go without.
Dara did not qualify for free lunches at school, because her parents could not prove income...or even lack of income. Her mom would stand on street corners and beg for money so that Dara could eat a hot breakfast and lunch at school. Another way they made money was by shoplifting something from one store and returning it to another store for a refund. Sometimes this worked and sometimes it didn't.
After a week of hearing these stories, I sent a note "home" with Dara asking her parents to come and visit with me at school. They came into my classroom in the best clothes they had, and had somehow cleaned Dara up and washed her hair, that was braided into two long braids.
I told her parents what Dara had told me. With long faces, they confirmed that her stories were indeed true. They had been living in a car for months, since the father had lost his job as an airplane mechanic. Her mother had become ill and need surgery and had been fired from her job before she could recover. With no savings to speak of, they went from living in a four bedroom, two bathroom home to living in a car in just a matter of weeks. They had never been in this position before and were not sure how to recover from the mess they found themselves in.
Their biggest fear was that they would have Dara taken away from them. At this point, she was the only good thing in their lives.
I had talked to our social worker earlier in the day and had come up with a list of resources for this family. They had not realized that there were so many resources available for them. We started making some calls immediately.
The first call was to a homeless shelter...well to all the homeless shelters in our area. We were told time after time that either the father couldn't stay with his family because they were women's only shelters, or that the mother and Dara could not stay in the shelter because there were too many men with sordid pasts. They finally decided that Dara and her mom would stay in one shelter, and Dad would stay in another. For the time being, their housing had been taken care of.
They also discovered that they could qualify for food stamps and some cash assistance from SRS. This was another resource that they did not know was available to them. Another call was made to a local church that was giving away clothing for homeless families. Part of the clothing was a suit and tie and a nice dress. The parents could use these nice outfits to interview for jobs. At the women's shelter there was a job resource class that helped the women learn to interview for jobs. Some local business owners would come in and give "real" interviews for the women to practice at. Sometimes women did so well that these owners would hire them. Dara's mom was one of the lucky ones. She was hired as a receptionist at a local company.
At the men's shelter, they also had a job resource center. Dara's dad interviewed time after time for jobs of all kinds. After a few months, he was hired at a construction business.
Since they had been living at the shelters, they had been able to save some of the SRS money. By the time the father had gotten his job, they had enough money to rent a small two bedroom apartment. They still received food stamps, and now medical help from SRS. They were now on their way to getting back on their feet and on their way back to a better life. Because of these changes, Dara had to move to a different school. I lost touch with her for several months.
On the last day of school, our school had a family picnic. I had told Dara about it when she was still attending our school. She had been excited about it and couldn't wait for it to happen. I was sad and upset that she wouldn't be able to be there.
But I was surprised. On the day of the picnic, Dara and her family came into my classroom. They had come to thank me for my help, and to let me know that there were some more positive changes in their life. The company that had hired Dara's mom had a program to help people go to college while they worked. Dara's mom had qualified for the program and she was now on her way to a degree in Business Administration. Dara's father had been promoted to supervisor at work. They had managed to move to a small house with a small yard.
Then Dara told me the best news of all. She told me that she was going to be a big sister soon!
Years later, I heard from Dara again. She now had a little brother. Her mother was managing the business that had hired her. Her father was still working in construction, and loved it. And Dara was on her way to college. Her major was Elementary Education....
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