[Hpn] Earning A+ in Homelessness:Many ... fell short. Not this once-displaced student

Morgan W. Brown norsehorse@hotmail.com
Mon, 19 Nov 2001 11:06:52 -0500

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

Saturday, November 17, 2001
Los Angeles Times <http://www.latimes.com>
[Los Angeles, California]
Orange County
Earning A+ in Homelessness

Schools: Many at Irvine High moaned about the experiment and fell short. Not 
this once-displaced student.


When her Irvine High School classmates wailed about giving up showers and 
cell phones for an awareness project on homelessness, senior Cortney Cross 
was silent.

Speakers told the teenagers that most homeless people are not the mentally 
ill who push shopping carts and mutter to themselves, that they are often 
families with children. Cortney didn't say a word.

But then, just before 125 classmates began three days of self-induced 
deprivation to get a taste of homelessness, Cortney let slip a secret. For 
eight anxious months her freshman year, Cortney and her family were 

The 17-year-old with the long, blond hair and the perfectly pressed jeans 
bounced from shelters to motel rooms to her grandmother's couch.

So Cortney's mother was understandably skeptical when her daughter asked 
permission to participate in the suburban high school's life lesson in 
homeless issues, which ended Friday. The mini-curriculum is sponsored by 
Costa Mesa-based HomeAid America, which builds housing for the temporarily 

Mother and daughter know firsthand that being homeless entails more than 
depriving yourself of a shower and the television.

It's about not being able to go to your own school. It's about living apart 
from your mother and little brother and the agony of missing them. It's 
about desperately mixing and matching your three outfits so no one will 
guess you have so few.

In the spring of her freshman year at Irvine High, Cortney said, she and her 
mother and younger brother became homeless the way many families do: They 
were booted out of their rental house in Irvine on short notice after a 
fight with roommates, and did not have enough saved for a security deposit 
and first and last month's rent to get into a new place. Cortney had to 
leave behind a lifetime of possessions, including her baby pictures and the 
family Bible, because they were not allowed in to retrieve them.

The first night, she and her mother and 12-year-old brother took a bus to a 
shelter in Santa Ana. Cortney remembers feeling surprised and comforted to 
see so many other families with kids in a similar situation. Her mother, 
Vanessa Rothweiler, bursts into tears as she recalls the same scene; to her, 
it signified the hardship her children were facing.

So began a dislocating odyssey of motel rooms and shelters. Finally, her 
brother went to live with his father while Cortney stayed with her 
grandmother in Placentia. Their mother stayed in a variety of places around 
the county--all this time employed in an Irvine office.

Finally, her family was able to get into a subsidized housing program in 
Irvine, and from there into their own apartment.

Katherine Ransom, communications director of HomeAid America, said she was 
not surprised to find homeless students attending school in the middle-class 
subdivisions of Irvine.

"There could be dozens more at this school," she said.

The Irvine students were told that as part of the lesson, they could not 
change clothes for two days. On Thursday night, they were encouraged to 
sleep in their cars.

No big deal, from Cortney's perspective. "I wore the same clothes for two 
months straight," she said.

Indeed, Cortney missed class because she couldn't get to school from the 
motel in Lake Forest where her family stayed for a time. She enrolled at 
another campus near her grandmother's house in Placentia, then slipped back 
into Irvine High, without a word about where she had been to any but a few 
close friends.

Even though she thought the exercise wouldn't come close to giving students 
a sense of what being homeless is really like, Cortney decided the exercise 
was important. It might help make her classmates--most from middle-class 
homes with computers, cell phones and vacations to faraway places--more 
aware of what can happen, what she and countless other children silently 

Especially after she overheard other students last week plotting how they 
would mock their unwashed classmates.

"I was listening to people on my campus, saying, 'Oh, we'll make fun of 
people who don't shower for a day,' " Cortney said. "And I thought, people 
should know that being homeless is not about not showering and wearing the 
same clothes.

"That's easy," she added. "The hard part is being separated from your 

Just talking about the project brings Cortney's mother to tears again.

"I got all emotional," she said. "I worked so hard to make sure my kids 
don't sleep in a car, and now she wants to.

"But she said, 'No, Mom, I've got something to teach them,' " Rothweiler 
said. "My kids are so strong. They're stronger than me."

The school experiment over, Cortney finds herself a little disappointed in 
some of her classmates.

Most of them showered Wednesday, refusing to go even one day without a 
shampoo, despite promising that they would hold off until Thursday. Chirping 
cell phones in class revealed that they had not given those up either, nor 
had they followed through with promises to shun their normal social groups 
to imitate the isolation felt by the homeless.

"It was kind of depressing to see that people didn't do it," Cortney said. 
"They all talk about how they're going to do this, and they can't do it for 
even one day."

Cortney's history teacher, Terry Griffin, chokes up when she talks about her 
dedicated and eager-to-please student, who sings in the choir, works in a 
preschool in the afternoons and hopes for a career in teaching.

"She's such a wonderful girl, and her story is so important," Griffin said. 
"It could be any of my kids that this could happen to . . . but they don't 
understand that."

Griffin hopes the week of classes and exercises will teach other Irvine 
students--who routinely refer to their town and their school as "the 
bubble"--to empathize with those less fortunate than them. The students were 
told, among other things, to beg for lunch money from classmates and spend 
one night sleeping in their parents' cars.

This was all child's play to Cortney. And the experience has strengthened 
her resolve to do something unthinkable only a week ago: tell her story at a 
schoolwide assembly next week on homeless issues.

"I haven't really decided what I want to say," she said. " I know something 
along the lines of, this problem is in our school. The kids notice it this 
week because they're paying attention, but it's all around our school. And 
it could be anyone."


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

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

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