- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 22, 2001

For most homeless families, moving around is an unpleasant, inevitable fact of life going from shelter to shelter in search of a more stable situation. And that impermanence can wreak havoc on a child's education.
Which is why, as the number of homeless children in Virginia grows, a state program to keep homeless children in public schools and give them the same chances those from more stable homes get takes on more significance.
Every afternoon after school, a Fairfax County public school bus picks up two children, Billy and Vanessa, from Lake Anne Elementary and drops them off at the Embry Rucker Shelter for the Homeless in Reston. The transportation is funded through Project Hope, the state's program.
They are too young to know they are homeless. Most people at their school do not know it either, so they are not made to feel different.
"We want to try and keep our homeless children in the same situation as other children," said Aneata Bonic, director of the Embry Rucker Shelter. "We want to make sure their education continues the way it is."
But their situation, while different enough from most other children, is not unique; the 19 homeless children at this shelter alone are among possibly thousands who attend public schools in Northern Virginia every day. Administrators say their numbers are rising sharply.
Statewide, the number of homeless children in public schools rose from 13,000 in the mid-1990s to 17,000 between 1999 and 2000 an increase of nearly 30 percent, said Patricia Popp, director of Project Hope. Of that 17,000, 688 lived in Alexandria, 649 in Fairfax and 83 in Arlington.
Administrators say those numbers likely underestimate the problem because many families find somewhere else to go.
"We do not know about the children who may be doubling up with relatives, or staying with their parents at motels," said Susan Miller, the liaison for Project Extra Step, Arlington County's program for homeless children.
She said the actual number of students in Arlington County schools who live in the shelters was actually 256 last year.
In Fairfax, too, the number of homeless children has increased, said Kathi Sheffel, the county's liaison for homeless children.
One of the chief contributors to these high numbers, administrators say, is the "hot housing" situation and rising immigration into the area.
"The average rent in this area would be between $650 and $700. A single mother with children cannot afford to pay that kind of money, even if she is working at more than one job," Miss Miller said. It is estimated that single-head households make up 75 to 80 percent of homeless families.
Through their programs funded by Project Hope, Arlington and Fairfax counties provide tutorial support, emergency transportation to and from school, school supplies and educational material, among other things.
The school divisions also provide special training to tutors to teach in homeless shelters. This year, they set up computers at each of the shelters to provide the children with more academic support.
Taking care of all the needs of homeless children costs money, though, and there is not quite enough of that coming in.
Project Hope was formed under the Stewart B. McKinney Homeless Assistance Act, a federal measure signed in 1987 that requires homeless children be given an equal education to those living in established residences.
Virginia got less than $500,000 from the McKinney grant, which is the only program that actually funds programs for homeless children. Of this, Fairfax got $38,000 and Arlington got $24,000. Alexandria has not yet received any money under the grant.
"We are now looking to see how we can help Alexandria," Ms. Popp said.
While parents in homeless families may have the best intentions, the situation they are in makes it difficult for them to pay full attention to the children, Ms. Bonic said. "If the parents are facing hardship, how much time can they devote to the kids?"
One of the biggest challenges those working with homeless children face is how quickly they move.
Homeless children are moved around frequently, often having several addresses in short periods of time. Most shelters provide housing for three to six months, after which residents are expected to move on to more permanent housing.
Frequent changing of schools can result in gaps in skill development, lack of continuity and problems in bonding with classmates and teachers, studies show. They also show homeless children often suffer from poor attention spans, difficulty in transitions and restlessness.
"Children coming from such backgrounds usually have to deal with a great deal of emotional stress," said Mrs. Miller with Project Extra Step. "They generally start to fall behind when in such situations."
She and Ms. Bonic point out, however, that several children excel at academics despite their homelessness.
Mrs. Sheffel said parents in a homeless situation although not always less educated themselves often find it hard to provide their children with the necessary support because of the situation they are in.
But the parents at the Embry Rucker shelter are trying to make the best of it.
William Abbell, 38, and his wife, Patricia, 41, have been living at the Embry Rucker shelter for just about two weeks now, with their son Billy and daughter Lauren, 3.
An arborist by trade, Mr. Abbell is currently out of a job, and the only father at the shelter among the families of the 19 children.
Mr. Abbell said he sometimes takes the children to a public library right across from Embry Rucker.
They love going there, he said.
Right now, the children are not quite aware of their situation and have shown no problems adjusting, their parents say.
"Children can be very resilient," said Joaquin Perez, a social worker who helps out the children at the shelter with school work.
Billy, who says he wants to be a police officer when he grows up, is a cheerful, bright child.
Vanessa, 5, is also a lively child who says she wants to work at the 7-Eleven when she grows up.
Minutes before dinner is served at the shelter one evening, Billy and Vanessa are solving a puzzle together in the community room at the shelter and playing with pieces of a plastic foam cup.
A short distance away, Edith Hart, an autistic child who attends Lake Anne, is watching television. " 'Seinfeld' is my favorite show," she says.
Edith lives here with her guardian, Shirley Jackson, 58, who is disabled due to poor health and cannot afford the high rent prices in the area.
The families are all new to the FCPS program, having just moved here from other counties. But they all say that so far, it has been a "blessing."
"Vanessa loves her new school," said her mother, Kim Poole, smiling as her daughter plays at the table with the other children.
Her year-old son, Dion, dominates her attention. He has not been feeling very well and is a little crabby, his mother says.
In shelves along the walls are stacked colorful children's books donated by libraries and communities in the area. Just off the community room is a computer where tutors work with children after school.
"It's nice here," Miss Poole said. "We are like a big family. Sometimes, we take each other's children out to the school bus and the children get to play together."
Four days a week, a volunteer comes in to read to the children.
Vanessa, her mother says, is not used to moving around much. This is her second stint at a shelter the first was in Prince William's County.
"Vanessa is really smart," Miss Poole said. She adds that the school has been "really great to her."
"They did not even ask if she needed the free snack they just put her on it," she said.
Miss Poole, 24, is a single mother with three children who is currently between jobs.
Besides Vanessa, there's Andre, who is 2, and Dion.
Miss Poole says she wants to go back to school to study computers. But more than anything, she says, she wants her children to remain in school.
"I don't want Vanessa to do what I did," she said, explaining that she dropped out of school and only recently got her diploma through a GED program. "I want her to do something with her life."

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