[Hpn] *Long*: Family is homeless, but not hopeless; Virginian-Pilot; 6/21/01

Morgan W. Brown morganbrown@hotmail.com
Thu, 21 Jun 2001 13:36:35 -0400

Below is a forward of an article featuring the lives of children and 
families who are homeless in the Virginia Beach area which may be of 
interest to you and others whom you know:


-------Forwarded article-------

Thursday, June 21, 2001
The Virginian-Pilot <http://www.pilotonline.com/>
Main page

Family is homeless, but not hopeless
Nearly 800 homeless children attend Virginia Beach schools. Like the Davis 
family, they try to keep up grades amid frequent moves.
Slide show: The Davis family 
Web Guide: Homeless resources 

News section
Family is homeless, but not hopeless

By SUSAN E. WHITE, The Virginian-Pilot

VIRGINIA BEACH -- Bobbet Davis inched through the crimson-clad graduates, 
scanning the courtyard for her 18-year-old daughter.

``Errr. . . leee. . . naaaa!'' Davis shouted. Within seconds, Earlina's 
siblings enveloped her, buried the Bayside High School graduate in 
congratulatory hugs, kisses and slaps on the back.

Six months earlier, Earlina didn't know if she'd have anything to celebrate 
by school year's end.

That's when Davis' family became homeless.

Since January, Davis, 36, and her six children have moved in and out of two 
Oceanfront area hotels and, until last week, lived in a temporary shelter 
run by Samaritan House, a local nonprofit that helps homeless people and 
domestic violence victims.

Davis' children aren't alone. There were nearly 17,000 homeless children in 
Virginia last year -- enough to fill Portsmouth's 28 schools.

For children, changing homes means changing schools, typically two to three 
times within one year. It also means they are more likely to be depressed 
and suffer poor health than children in more permanent homes, and twice as 
likely to repeat a grade. Many need remediation in math and reading.

Locally, the numbers of these children are highest in Virginia Beach, where 
off-season resort area hotel rates offer temporary refuge for homeless 
families. About 800 of the area's 1,000 homeless school-age children 
attended Virginia Beach schools this year. At W.T. Cooke Elementary alone, 
nearly 200 students transferred in while roughly 125 moved out of the resort 
area school because of housing issues.

Davis, a single mom for 11 years, bucked the transient trend and fought to 
keep her children from switching schools this year. Without a home, she 
reasoned, teachers and friends provided a precious bit of stability.

So the children adjusted to a life Davis never wanted for them -- one of 
nomads. They stayed in school but they struggled to stay focused. Grades 
slipped from As and Bs to failing.

Homelessness. Hotel life. Everything. It is shaping them all.

There is Earlina, a strong surrogate mother to her siblings, who diligently 
worked to pull up her English grade from a ``D'' to a ``B'' so she could 
graduate. She longs for a business degree and a job as a legal assistant. 
She dreams of marriage and of having one ``and only one'' child.

Danielle, 17, is a reserved, determined young woman who looks to Earlina for 
friendship and support. She abhors the homeless label. No one, she says, 
should know her family's ``business.''

Jamie, 15, is the reluctant father-figure. He'd rather entertain his 
siblings with innocent one-liners than have to make sure they get home from 
school safely, do their homework or get dinner.

Caroline, 13, who goes by ``Coco,'' is a longtime honor roll student. Coco 
is happiest when she's in school surrounded by friends who don't see the 
``grumpy, mean, cranky person'' she says she becomes at the end of the day. 
``They don't know I live an adult life,'' she says.

Alex, one of Davis' 11-year-old twins, is a precocious boy who considers 
teasing his sisters as much a sport as riding a skateboard. In his reading 
remediation class, where he struggles with spelling, he writes about being a 

And Alexis, the other twin, a timid girl in class but a leader on the 

Teachers try to help homeless children like these with basic needs: pencils, 
backpacks, money for field trips. They struggle to catch the students up 
academically with their peers.

At Cooke Elementary, teachers know they may have a short window to identify 
transient students with spotty skills before the students move on to another 
school. They see poor, but academically gifted students slip through the 

``We've got kids who almost cry out for special education,'' said Cooke 
Principal Gregory S. Anderson. ``But by the time you get your testing 
started, they've moved. To get the kids in the right programs to be able to 
address their special needs becomes elusive when you have a moving target.''

Starting over

They are of every race and age. Their reasons for being homeless are just as 

Homelessness for Davis' family began right after Christmas. They were living 
in Davis' mother's mobile home in Virginia Beach when her mother went 

Twenty-one days.

For a single mom working two jobs, it was little time to find new housing. 
Desperate, Davis chose a temporary solution: a resort area hotel with cheap 
off-season rates.

At first, the kids were excited about their new home. Every day would be a 
mini-vacation. Then reality set in.

Time and money. There was never enough of either. The tourist season was 
months away, but with Davis barely taking home $1,000 a month, the dollars 
dwindled. Over three months, she gutted her savings on hotel bills.

Nearly $60 a week went for transportation for the children, who attended 
Point O'View Elementary, Larkspur Middle and Bayside High, schools 15 to 20 
miles from the Oceanfront.

As students across the city leaped out their front doors each morning to 
catch free, 10-minute bus rides to school, Davis' kids closed the door to 
their hotel room by 5:30 a.m. and boarded city buses for hourlong rides to 
neighborhoods where they then caught school buses.

Their dependence on public transportation stripped away little things 
children take for granted. No hanging out with friends at the mall. No 
after-school clubs. No sports. No good night's sleep.

After school, Earlina walked 20 minutes from Bayside to a nearby shopping 
center, where she caught a city bus to Pembroke Mall, then another to 
Chartway Federal Credit Union on Newtown Road where she worked part time.

At the same time, her siblings were stepping on and off school and city 
buses, which dumped them off at their hotel by 6:30 p.m. There, the older 
kids cooked hamburger and macaroni and cheese in the kitchenette, laid out 
clothes for the next day and put the younger ones to bed.

``They're traveling more than they have time to sit down to study,'' Davis 
said. ``They don't have time to play outside. Their game is who can beat 
that (HRT) bus before it gets to the stop?''

The logistical nightmare worsened in April. The family moved into a 
three-bedroom Samaritan House shelter in the Bayside area. That temporarily 
solved their housing problems but complicated transportation and money 
issues. Samaritan House rules prohibit children from being in the shelters 
without a parent.

As a working mom, Davis didn't get home until after 11 p.m. That meant that 
the kids had to catch a $1.50 bus ride to the two-bedroom resort area 
apartment their aunt shares with her husband and three children. There, the 
kids would huddle around the kitchen counter for a quick meal of frozen 
pizza or packaged noodles. Then they did homework, watched TV or chatted 
with neighbors.

By late evening, the siblings were traveling again, headed for the Kmart 
across from Pembroke Mall.

The family reunion

It's 8:30 p.m. and the two-block trot from the children's aunt's apartment 
to the bus stop suddenly turns into a sprint.

``Where's Alex?'' Coco yells at her brother Jamie, jogging just a few steps 
behind. ``Come on! The bus is coming!''

Alex, basketball in hand, darts into view and jumps to the curb as the bus 
doors spread.

``Where's my ticket? I don't have a ticket,'' Alex cried.

Earlina and Coco fumble through their backpacks. It isn't in the zippered 
pocket where Coco proudly keeps the snapshot of her older brother, Bobby, a 
Marine at Camp Lejeune.

Earlina finally finds the $1.50 stub. Another crisis averted. As a 
substitute mother to her siblings, Earlina is accustomed to living life on 
the edge. She's had to.

``Since Bobby left, the load is all on me,'' she said while waiting for the 
bus. ``Mom reminds me, `You're the leader.' So, it's my job to make sure the 
kids look decent, that their clothes are clean and that they get home 

Earlina gets by on a mixture of intuitiveness and street smarts. She knows 
the numbers to the pay phones at the bus stops the children frequent. She 
used to call from her job to check on them.

``They got tired of it,'' she said. ``As soon as the phone would ring, 
they'd pick up and say, `What is it, Earlina?' ''

At the bus stop, the kids are finally aboard. Their destination is the 
Kmart, 35 minutes away. On this night, as with most, each child chooses a 
seat alone; their own space. After an afternoon together, they long for 
freedom -- if only briefly -- from each other.

Danielle and Earlina nap, oblivious to the bus's blinding interior lights or 
rumbling motor. Coco and Alexis stare sleepy-eyed through tinted glass, 
which reflects the images of the blue-collar workers sitting near them. From 
their window seats, strip malls, fast-food joints, flashing neon signs 
flicker by.

Five days a week. Ride after ride. It never changes.

On most school nights, the kids got to their final bus stop before 10 p.m. 
Mom usually arrived an hour later via city bus from her concierge's job at a 
Norfolk hotel. They caught a cab home.

``I'd see them as we drove up sometimes sleeping on the shelter benches,'' 
Davis said of her children. ``They looked like little bums. It just breaks 
my heart.''

Beach school officials supported Davis' decision to keep her kids in their 
home schools because it was in the children's best interest, said Gay 
Thomas, the division's coordinator of social work services. But it isn't 
always that easy. Federal law guarantees homeless children an equal 
education, yet educators often struggle to understand it, Thomas said.

B.J. McGrath, the coordinator for Project HOPE, the Beach school division's 
homeless education project, spends more time than she'd like insisting that 
the lack of a permanent home or transportation are not legal reasons for 
denying a child's school enrollment. Last year alone, she found of the 308 
homeless students her office served, an estimated 65 percent had difficulty 
enrolling in schools because of residency issues.

``Once you explain it to them (educators), they usually understand and will 
work with you,'' McGrath said. ``But it can be frustrating.''

Project HOPE also helps homeless families find shelter and tutors and 
sometimes even bus tickets.

Last month, Davis called McGrath, anxious that her kids had no way home from 
school. They'd left that morning with their last tickets in hand. Before 
day's end, tickets were at Bayside High. But Earlina didn't know they were 
there. The children still made it home on borrowed change from a friend.

They do it all, the siblings say, to keep their family together. Nothing is 
more important, not even permanent shelter. They also see the determination 
and love in their mother.

``She tries to give us anything but she can't always do it because she has 
too many things to worry about,'' Coco said.

Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach, the Beach's teacher of the year, knows the stories. 
She, too, grew up homeless, moving from hotel to hotel, school to school.

``You have to grow up so fast and learn to make mature decisions,'' 
Nussbaum-Beach said. ``You can't be a little kid. You can't give into your 

Beach teachers say they see it, though. Jacque Resch saw the fear when Coco 
walked into her classroom at Larkspur Middle. The sixth-grader with ebony 
ringlets lacked self-esteem and motivation. With work, she's learned to take 
risks and accept herself, Resch said.

``We try to teach these kids that no matter what background you come from, 
you can be anything,'' she said.

An uncertain future

Two days before Earlina's graduation, the family packed up a few boxes of 
clothing -- all they had -- and left Samaritan House. They had broken the 
rules. Davis had allowed the kids to be home alone after school. The 
children originally had gone to their aunt's, but she wasn't there. Tired 
and hungry, the kids begged their mom to bend the rules, which Samaritan 
House officials say are needed to protect the children. Group officials 
asked the family to leave.

Davis put the latest crisis aside last week to celebrate Earlina's 
graduation. For a moment, she could breathe. Her eldest daughter had made it 
through high school.

What would happen next? Where would they live? Where would they go to school 
next year? That would all have to wait.

Reach Susan E. White at 222-5121 or swhite@pilotonline.com


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-------End of forward-------

Morgan <morganbrown@hotmail.com>
Morgan W. Brown
Montpelier Vermont USA

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