First of four parts
Like a silent epidemic, the number of homeless children in Michigan schools is growing.
In the 2010-11 school year, more than 31,000 homeless students attended school — 8,500 more than in the previous school year, a 37% spike attributed to the weak economy, loss of jobs and the foreclosure crisis. Overall, the number of homeless students in Michigan has jumped more than 300% in the last four years. Most experts say those numbers are low because many parents are embarrassed to admit they are homeless. And many school districts lack the resources to identify these kids, as required by federal law.
Advocates say there’s also a disincentive to find homeless children. Once a district finds them, it has to pay to transport them to school and provide other services — a tough job for many cash-strapped districts. School officials who deal with these children say the numbers are likely to grow next year because of the thousands of families who have lost jobless benefits and other cash assistance.
“You are going to see this tsunami of poverty hit us,” said Beth McCullough, who coordinates help for homeless students in Adrian Public Schools.
Poverty among the state’s children has already grown from 19.4% in 2007, when the economic downturn began, to 23.5% in 2010.
The majority of the homeless students are living doubled up with relatives or family friends. Others end up moving to shelters or motels.
Still, every morning, they get up and go to school.
Kathy Kropf, who coordinates services for homeless children in Macomb County schools, said most of the students she is helping now are not the habitually homeless. In the last three years, 75%-80% have been new to the system.
In the past, she said, homeless students came from rental evictions or a house fire or were fleeing domestic abuse. “Then it became foreclosure, foreclosure, foreclosure,” Kropf said.
One day at a time for families on the edge
Matt Domagalski sat on a couch, in a house that wasn’t his home, trying to do his eighth-grade homework. It was September, early in the school year, but he couldn’t concentrate.
“The fleas were bothering me,” he said. “I’d look down and they were hopping on my feet.”
His mother, Nicole Larabee, tried to clean the place where they were staying, but the homeowner’s three cats kept defecating on the floor. So they moved again.
The mother and son have spent several months bouncing from house to house in Livonia, hoping not to wear out their welcome.
They moved five times in about six weeks. Matt, 14, could never get comfortable. His grades started falling. He didn’t have time to think about school because he was more worried about finding the shower or the towels after each move.
“It was so weird, being in a new place,” Matt said. “You didn’t know how long you were going to be there. Do they want you to still be here? Do they want to help you? Do they want you to get out as soon as possible?
“When you walk in, you think of so much stuff. Where are you sleeping? What is the shower like? You have no idea how it works.”
Matt, a big, thick football player with a kind, fragile personality, was constantly on edge, always afraid of getting kicked out.
“It’s hard to think when you are that stressed out,” Matt said. “You can’t do anything.”
Sleeping in a dog house
There are more than 31,000 homeless children in Michigan schools. Most of the students, like Matt, are living doubled up with relatives or friends. Others live in shelters or motels. Or they’re living in cars or in tents at parks and campgrounds.
“We have homeless kids in Michigan who have lived in every situation imaginable,” said Pamela Kies-Lowe, the Homeless Education state coordinator for the Michigan Department of Education. “If we are not helping those kids, school is the last thing on their minds.”
Kies-Lowe tells of a 16-year-old student found sleeping in a dog house.
“I guess he wore out his welcome,” she said. “The friend he was staying with said, ‘Go and sleep in the dog house. And I will bring you food. And you can sneak in and use my bathroom. And we’ll go to school in the morning.’”
Although the number of homeless students has risen dramatically in the past few years as the economy has faltered, the problem is underreported because many homeless families try to hide their situation. These families are worried their children will be taken from them for being a bad parent. Or they’re afraid their children will have to switch schools if they find shelter in another school district.
And even though every school district in the state is required by federal law to appoint a homeless liaison to identify homeless students, some school districts are reluctant to find these students, said Barbara Duffield, policy director for the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth, based in Washington, D.C.
That’s because the law requires school districts to provide school supplies and pay to transport homeless children back to the school they attended before they became homeless if they want, even if it is far away.
“There is actually a perverse disincentive to find homeless kids, if finding them means paying for transportation,” Duffield said. “Yet transportation is essential if these kids are to have any hope of graduating from high school. It doesn’t matter how great your teacher is — if you go to five schools in a year, or no school at all, you won’t learn.”
At a statewide homeless student conference in September, presenters said some students were living in the woods.
Peri Stone-Palmquist, coordinator of the Education Project for Homeless Youth in the Washtenaw Intermediate School District, said she discovered a student who was living in a tent.
“I said, ‘Where were your parents?’ ” Stone-Palmquist said. “And he said, ‘Well, my mom is dead. My dad is dead. My brother was sleeping outside and he froze to death.’ ”
Susan Whitener, who has held a variety of positions working with homeless youths in northern Michigan, listened to Stone-Palmquist tell the story, but she wasn’t shocked.
“We also have that sleeping-in-the woods issue,” said Whitener, a homeless consultant for the Inland Lakes School District in Cheboygan County in northern Michigan. “We maintain a really good supply of sleeping bags and tents for the kids.”
Most of the homeless students have never been homeless before.
“This is a first-time experience for those families,” said Holly Holloway, program manager for the Oakland Schools Homeless Student Education Program. “I think we are seeing previously affluent or middle-class families that are now struggling. You don’t know where to turn. You don’t know what protections there are under the law.”
And that was the case with Matt and his mother.
They didn’t know where to turn.
Turn of events
Nicole Larabee wears blue jeans, tennis shoes and a pink Red Wings sweatshirt. Her blond hair is pulled back with bobby pins. She has a soft, timid voice and a pearly white smile.
This year, Larabee lost her job as a loan officer at a credit union. She lost her home to foreclosure in August. Now, she sleeps on a mattress in a friend’s basement, next to her son.
After three months of bouncing around, she finally got up the courage to ask for help, attending an event for homeless people in Taylor last month.
Turning into the parking lot of Our Lady of Angels Church, Larabee was stunned to see so many cars, so many people in the same situation as her.
This was new to her. Larabee, 32, grew up in Farmington Hills, the oldest of four kids in a middle-class family. Her father owned a tow-truck company and her mother would eventually become a custodial supervisor for Farmington Public Schools. The family took Kodak-worthy vacations, often in Florida, and had an above-ground swimming pool in the backyard.
“I was very lucky,” Larabee said. “I had a very fortunate childhood.”
And now, on this day, she was about to admit that she and her son are homeless.
More than anything, she was afraid of making the wrong move.
Sitting in a borrowed truck — the transmission on her Ford Focus had gone out — she teared up and tried to draw courage before walking into the church. If she admitted to being homeless, would she lose her son?
‘I was very desperate’
Two years ago, Larabee was married and had a four-bedroom house on a half acre in Livonia. As a loan officer, she talked day after day to laid-off autoworkers who were losing their homes or cars.
“I was hoping and praying for them…that they would find jobs or find a solution and not lose their homes,” she said.
Then she found herself in the same boat.
In March 2010, Larabee resigned from her $12-an hour job because she had an offer for a new job, with the potential to make more money.
But the new job fell through, and suddenly, she was in serious trouble. She couldn’t find work. By then, her 13-year marriage had ended in divorce. Her older son, Brian Oliverio, 16, had moved in with his grandmother to avoid the stress of the divorce.
In August, the gas and electricity were turned off at Larabee’s house. She put most of her stuff in storage and she and Matt slept on the floor of their house until the bank foreclosed on it.
She thought of buying a tent and living at a campground.
“I felt it would be better than my car,” she said. “I didn’t even know where shelters were. I was very desperate.”
Larabee and her son started couch surfing, bouncing from friend to friend, relative to relative. A few days here, a few days there, trying to travel light by keeping only a change of clothing in bags and important documents in a plastic box.
More than once, she went back to the storage unit to get clean clothes. At times, she changed her clothes in the storage unit.
As they moved from place to place, Larabee was careful to stay in Livonia, so that her son, who was starting the eighth grade, could stay at his school.
But she ran out of options when a family member refused to take her in, saying he couldn’t afford it.
In October, after moving five times, including from the place infested with fleas, Larabee called her childhood friend, Liz McConaghie-Schleicher, 32, who has two children and was recently divorced.
“Can I come over and take a shower and do my laundry?” Larabee asked.
McConaghie-Schleicher invited her to dinner, then showed Larabee the basement, encouraging her to stay.
“She just opened up her arms,” Larabee said. “I think she knew it was too hard for me to even ask for the shower.”
Hope at homeless event
At the homeless event in Taylor, volunteers walked around in matching T-shirts in the gymnasium. They offered free coats and blankets. Free food. Free hygiene kits. Even free haircuts. Four volunteers from Great Clips gave 42 haircuts in the first two hours of the event, organized by the Out-Wayne County Homeless Services Coalition.
Fourteen tables arranged around the gym featured a different organization, many promoting themselves with large cardboard displays.
Larabee walked leisurely, looking at different displays like a shopper browsing through the mall.
She walked by an educational display.
“Do you have a GED?” a woman asked.
“I have my associate’s degree,” Larabee said proudly, referring to her two-year degree in business administration, which she earned from Louisiana Tech University with a 3.55 grade point average.
Larabee was told to go upstairs, so that she could be assigned to a case manager.
“I don’t even know what one does,” she said, waiting.
Larabee met with Nicole Valentini, a case manager at the Wayne Metropolitan Community Action Agency.
Valentini told her about a program for homeless people with a source of income. Larabee — who was getting child support and was on food stamps — might be eligible to receive a security deposit for a new place and possibly the first month’s rent, Valentini said. That security deposit is crucial because it is the hurdle that keeps many homeless families in shelters or in motels.
For the first time in a long time, Larabee felt encouraged.
“I keep telling myself, someway, somehow, this is happening for a reason,” she said. “I’m not sure why. I keep reminding myself, one day at a time.”
A sense of normalcy
Larabee tries to make the basement look like a home. She set up a lamp and a bookshelf to display her son’s football picture and trophy. She put a rug by her mattress and put up a bulletin board to display Matt’s important school notes.
“I’m definitely trying to maintain a normal childhood for him, by keeping him enrolled in activities, so he can have friendships and be around other kids,” Larabee said.
Matt is failing two classes, which is hardly surprising, considering homeless children, on average, struggle worse than children with homes.
“It makes me feel like I’ve let him down, like I’m not providing for him as best as he deserves,” Larabee said. “Even though I’m trying.”
Although Larabee is thankful — thankful beyond words for the help she has received from friends and relatives — she worries about everything.
Is she taking too long in the shower? Is she using too much electricity? Is she spending too much time in the bathroom? She tries not to be a bother.
“The low point is not knowing where to go,” she said.
But she found a sliver of hope in the homeless event.
“That’s a huge relief right there, to know there is hope and there are organizations out there that will help me to get back on our feet again and to have a home, so we can come home and say, ‘We are home.’ ”
Larabee has a standing offer to live with McConaghie-Schleicher for as long as she wants.
“What does it matter if you are living here?” McConaghie-Schleicher said. “I still have to pay the same bills. She’s very helpful, very thankful for everything, always.”
In the last two weeks, Larabee has interviewed for two jobs, but struck out. One was selling office supplies and the other was taking care of hospice patients.
She is frustrated about finding an affordable place to live without a job. All the apartments she has found cost $600 a month or more.
“I’m trying,” she said. “But without a job, I’m in panic mode.”
Better, not perfect
Larabee also has applied to the University of Michigan-Dearborn and hopes to get a bachelor’s degree in marketing or advertising. She wants to get a place to live and reunite with her other son.
Matt is starting to feel comfortable in the basement.
“It’s better than some of the other places,” he said.
But it’s not perfect.
He is in a band, but doesn’t have a drum set like most of the other drummers in his class. “I wish I had one,” he said.
But it’s hard to tote around a drum set when you are living out of a bag.
And he doesn’t have Internet access, even though most of the social studies work is done online.
“My teacher is cool about it,” Matt said. “He personally makes hard copies for me.”
Matt still feels out of place, never able to relax. “You never feel at home,” he said, “unless you have your own place.”