Homework at the windowsill

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May 16, 2014
By: Monica Nilsson
Monica Nilsson

Imagine if over one in 10 of the people who work downtown Minneapolis had no home to go to at the end of the work day?

What if 40 Metro Transit buses lining Nicollet Mall weren’t full of folks going home from work, but rather full of homeless children going to shelter from school?

Elizabeth Hinz is the Liaison for Homeless and Highly Mobile Students for Minneapolis Public Schools. She and her team are responsible for every homeless school-age child — to see that they are enrolled in school, that they have transportation and school supplies.

Homeless or highly mobile children (those who move from house to house) miss an average of 28 of the 176 school days each year. Hinz says: “The impact of homelessness on children and youth is hard to overstate. This experience has a direct impact on their academic outcomes and futures.”

In Minneapolis, the equivalent of 40 school buses full of homeless students, 2,000 children and teens, are brought to school each day. That’s one in 10 students. 

Children, not men, are the largest population of homeless people in Minnesota.  Another 1,000 children are brought to schools in the suburbs and St. Paul from Minneapolis each day. To give a bit of perspective on homelessness in our region, if a family loses their housing in the eight county metro area, there are no emergency family shelters to go to in all of Scott, Carver and Chisago counties nor all of suburban Hennepin and suburban Ramsey counties. There is space for eight families in all of Washington County, six families in all of Anoka County and 15 families in Dakota County.  

It’s hard to get homework done when you are sleeping in different places, staying with different people, not always sure what the rules are for the people with whom you are staying.

In some shelters, where there’s only space for beds in the room, children pull up a chair to the windowsill. It serves as a desk to do homework. 

What is the routine here? Where do I sleep, when do we eat, when does it get quiet to sleep? All these basics become more immediate and important than homework. Students not getting enough sleep — or having disturbed sleep — means it’s very hard to focus on school work during the day. Not enough sleep means it is sometimes hard to control emotions, easy to have outbursts and misunderstandings with other kids in the classroom and even the teachers.

We waste money having children be homeless. School districts are required to provide transportation for students who are homeless so they can remain in their schools throughout the school year. In Minneapolis, nearly $3 million was spent transporting children to school while homeless or unstably housed, and nearly $10 million statewide. These are additional transportation costs, extra buses or routes or cab/Metro Transit fare. Downtown Minneapolis family shelters currently have 35 school buses coming to each shelter daily from 12 to 17 different school districts.

How do we measure the cost of the emotional burden these children carry to the classroom everyday? The worry that’s carried with unpredictable relationships, even if they are people who want to be helpful, and the uncertainty of place?

When a staff member of St. Stephens Human Services taught a children’s art class at a shelter, an 8 year old presented his drawing. It was a frenzy of colored swirls. “I’m drawing what it feels like inside my head,” he said.

What kind of anxiety do you suppose is brought to school when a child has to walk through a metal detector when they leave “home” from the shelter each morning? When they’ve had breakfast surrounded by strangers? How might they feel to move from church to church every week and can’t have familiar things around them? 

Even very young kids, first graders, can worry during the school day about younger siblings and parents being hungry, not having enough food where they are staying for the night. We’ve seen students who stay for after-school activities want to take home extra snacks for themselves or others in the family. They worry about supper where they are staying.

These children are future problems or opportunities.

Dr. Ann Masten of the Institute of Child Development at the University of Minnesota says: “We are not going to be able to tackle the issues of the achievement gap without addressing the issue of mobility in our student populations. The best and most successful interventions for children to overcome adversity through resilience are common ordinary developmental processes. This is not about rare personal qualities or silver bullet solutions. It means having basic physical and emotional needs met at key points in a child’s life. This includes housing.”

Monica Nilsson is an advocate for children, teens, their parents and single adults who are at risk of losing their home or are now homeless. Contact her for conversation at St Stephen’s Human Services — mnilsson@ststephensmpls.org.