[Hpn] Homeless Students Have Their Say at Conference

chance martin streetsheet@sf-homeless-coalition.org
Sun, 03 Dec 2000 15:26:19 -0700

Homeless Students Have Their Say at Conference
Advocates offer curriculum to S.F. schools
Nanette Asimov, Chronicle Staff Writer
Sunday, December 3, 2000
©2000 San Francisco Chronicle


When Lisa Gray-Garcia was a teenager in the late '80s, she told some kids
that her mother was planning a birthday party for her "like Mrs. Brady" on

In truth, Gray-Garcia and her mother lived in a car, and there would be no

"I felt shame," said the woman with pink bangs who now goes by the name

"Jewnbug" lives in an SRO hotel. She and her family have always battled

"You feel hella embarrassed," said the 24-year-old.

Shame at being homeless emerged in full force yesterday at Mission High
School in San Francisco where the women participated in a conference called
"Young Voices Speak Out on Poverty & Homelessness."

Attended by more than 100 students, parents and community leaders, the
meeting was convened by homeless advocacy groups to recommend that schools
adopt a new curriculum to teach all students about the widespread problem,
and to give voice to perhaps the neediest and quietest group of Americans:
homeless children. 

The Urban Institute, a national social research group in Washington, D.C.,
estimates that 1.35 million children in the nation are homeless.

In San Francisco, school officials are not certain how many homeless
children live in the city, but estimate there are as many as 4,000. That is
6 percent of school enrollment.

And because those children don't have a stable household, their education
also suffers. 

Marques Scott, 18, attended 10 schools before winding up this year at
Mission. He and his father, three brothers, sister and 2-month-old niece are
staying at St. Joseph's family shelter. Standing up before the audience,
which included San Francisco's new schools chief, Arlene Ackerman, Scott
gave a shy smile. "I ain't never did this before," he admitted.

Yet his message was clear: "Do your school work even if you is homeless."

That's what Scott has tried to do, though there have been long gaps in his
schooling as they moved from town to town and waited for his school records
to catch up. Once, the family holed up for two weeks in a Budget Motel in
Sacramento while waiting for records from the Oregon schools.

Though Scott doesn't yet know if he has enough credits to graduate, he has
already won a $1,000 education grant from North Carolina State University to
use when he's ready. Scott said he was disappointed that Mayor Willie Brown
had not come. 

But Debbie Alvarez was there. As director of the Mayor's Department of
Children, Youth and Their Families, Alvarez moderated a discussion on
homelessness. She began with her own tale.

"I was 12 years old, and it was 2 in the morning when we escaped our
stepfather who had a butcher knife," Alvarez told the audience. She and her
mother and little brothers and sisters ran onto the street and to a cousin's
house. She slept on the floor there for two months.

"I didn't go to school for six weeks," she said. "I was too ashamed."

A teacher found her and coaxed her back to school. "For the first time," she
said, "I had an adult besides my mother who I loved and trusted."

A new curriculum to teach all students about homelessness was presented
yesterday by Barbara Duffield of the National Coalition for the Homeless.
She hopes the San Francisco school district will approve its use in city

The curriculum contains descriptions of homelessness, such as "homeless
children worry they will never have a place to live," and offers classroom
activities, including writing about what "home" means, and exploring

Ackerman said she would consider the curriculum. But presently, she said,
she is concerned about how to improve the district's academic help for
homeless students. 

The district just lost a $150,000 federal McKinney grant for homeless
education that it had received annually for years.

"Frankly, our grant was poorly written," Ackerman acknowledged.

But instead of ending the program, which provides outreach and tutoring to
children in shelters, Ackerman took money from the general fund to pay for

"When we lost our grant, it appeared to be a crisis -- but it was really an
opportunity to do things differently," said Ackerman, who has formed a task
force to find out what works well in other cities.

Although the odds are stacked against them, some homeless children have
found the strength to succeed and even thrive. Two of the women who spoke at
the conference, Tiny and Jewnbug, are proof.

Tiny was homeless with her mother for 10 years, beginning at age 12. The
pair sold original art on the streets to make money, and then Tiny began
writing about her experiences for the East Bay Express.

Today, Tiny runs a glossy, once-a-year magazine called "Poor" that features
writers from local unknowns to staffers from the New York Times. It sells on
a sliding scale from free to $100. Her most prominent customer, she said, is
physician Patch Adams, portrayed by Robin Williams in a major motion

"My mother and I are a success story," she said.

At the conference, Jewnbug seemed to know everyone, including the
superintendent, who has enlisted her as an adviser on her new homeless task

Jewnbug, who graduated from high school through a program at City College,
does not define her success in monetary terms.

"I ain't low-class," she told the crowd. "I ain't none of that stuff just
because I don't have 'things.' " Like many at the conference, she advocated
an end to the term "homeless."

"Let's say 'house-less,' " she said. "Not 'home-less.' What we have is
friendship, love, music and poetry. Home is where the heart is."

E-mail Nanette Asimov at nasimov@sfchronicle.com

©2000 San Francisco Chronicle   Page A28


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