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Homeless Children In Texas Prep For New School Year

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David Martin Davies
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This is the time of year for a back-to-school shopping spree. Young students gear up with new clothes and a backpack full of the pencils, pens, paper and gizmos needed to succeed. But for the homeless children of Texas, being able to walk into a classroom on that first day – and eventually graduate – is just a dream. There are people and programs in the state, however, that are working to make those dreams come true.

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Credit David Martin Davies
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There are racks of new clothes and tables with books, backpacks, new shoes and school supplies. For one night the SAMMinistries Transitional Living and Learning Center is transformed into a mini shopping mall.  About 200 students who are homeless like Seth Reynosa can get what they need.

“How many pair can I get?,” asks Seth.

“You get two,” answers Rich Holt, a mentor working with Seth. 

"Men’s pants,  I already saw a pair I was looking at.”

Seth has his arms wrapped around his new belongings. He doesn’t want to let them go.

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“You need me to hold those, Bud?” “No, I’ve got them.”

Seth is an eleventh grader at John F. Kennedy High School and dreams of one day becoming an architect.

“I want to be able to build something that will last for generations. That’s why I want to be an architect,” he said.

He isn’t letting homelessness for him and his mother slow him down.

“The economical times got really hard for us. I mean we’re going to get through it. We’ll get through this,” he said.

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Seth and his mother lost their apartment and for a while they couch surfed, stayed with various family members and friends, until they heard about SAMMinistries.

SAMMinistries President and CEO Navarra Williams says he’s seen many children who were once homeless go through these doors and find academic success.

“We work with the homeless liaisons in the different schools. We make sure the children are doing everything we can to help them stay at their grade level. To get them involved in extracurricular activities, and to provide more of a learning experience when they go through SAMMinistries programs,” Williams said.   

But key to that is providing wrap-around services to the children.

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“Through the transitional programs we give them that opportunity because they can stay in this program for up to two years. They pay no rent – no utilities. But they do have to agree to go to school full time,” he said.

It’s estimated that there are over 100,000 homeless children in the Texas public school system.

“There are probably many many more who are not identified by the districts for a variety of reasons,” said Barbara Wand James, director of the Texas Homeless Education Office.

“These can be students who are literally living on the streets:  in cars; under bridges; in tents. Also, these include kids who are living in homeless shelters for victims of domestic violence.  Or what’s the most common situation is when students are in doubled up situations. This is when families or unaccompanied children have been forced to move in with friends or family because they can not afford their own place," said James.

She says for these kids to make it to the graduation stage can seem out of reach, there are so many challenges. And issues for teens like their appearance and fashion are important to them.

“A lot of times they don’t have the same clothes that other kids have. They are wearing hand me downs or threadbare clothes. They don’t have all the shoes and different types of clothing and equipment that they need. They lack school supplies. A lot of times they don’t have the supplies they need to be successful in the classroom. They don’t have the backpack. There are just a lot of stressors that come along with being homeless,” she said.

James says it’s hard enough to be a teen these days but mix in the added uncertainties and stigma of being homeless it’s tempting for many to drop out. But for those who get support – they not only survive school but thrive there.

“A higher percentage of students experiencing homelessness are graduating than in the non-homeless population. Those circumstances occur in districts where students get one-to-one interventions where someone is there working with them on a continuous basis to make sure they have everything in place that they need to do their work – to come to class – to fully participate in class – and to graduate,” James said.

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Homeless high school student Jessica Dooley volunteers at the Humane Society's Animal Shelter

“Apparently, people find something really awesome about me,” said Jessica Dooley, a spirited 17 year old. She has no doubt that she’ll graduate at the end of this year. She’s homeless and she’s going to be a senior at Madison High School. She says right now – despite being homeless and living at the SAMMinistries shelter – life is good.

“I was actually quite stressed out. Then I moved to SAMMinistries and all my stress went away,” she said.

Previously, Jessica and her mother were living in a troubled situation.

“There was, like, a lot of abuse and stuff,” she said

They fled that scene and ended up at SAMMinistries.

Today she and other homeless kids are volunteering at the Human Society’s animal shelter. Jessica is excited about that since one day she plans to be a veterinarian.

“At Madison they have a maverick program. I can take vet classes there. This year I’m taking vet application.”  

Becoming a vet is a goal that’s now within her reach since she’s not letting being homeless derail her future.

David Martin Davies can be reached at dmdavies@tpr.org and on Twitter at @DavidMartinDavi