[Hpn] Earning A+ in Homelessness:Many ... fell short. Not this once-displaced student
Morgan W. Brown
Mon, 19 Nov 2001 11:06:52 -0500
Saturday, November 17, 2001
Los Angeles Times <http://www.latimes.com>
[Los Angeles, California]
Earning A+ in Homelessness
Schools: Many at Irvine High moaned about the experiment and fell short. Not
this once-displaced student.
By JESSICA GARRISON, TIMES STAFF WRITER
When her Irvine High School classmates wailed about giving up showers and
cell phones for an awareness project on homelessness, senior Cortney Cross
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
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
"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
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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Morgan W. Brown
Montpelier Vermont USA
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