Friday, April 13, 2001

Homeless aid funds may be cut

By Susan Vela
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        A 6-year-old kindergartner enters a makeshift classroom. With both hands, she holds a one-sheet homework assignment. It is due the next day at Oyler Elementary School.

        The girl, homeless for the past month, is reaping the benefits of the “homework club” at Interfaith Hospitality Network's shelter in Lower Price Hill.

[photo] At Project Connect's homework club, Wini Bruening uses a computer with Nate Haney, 9, and another Oyler student. Nate's family was in a shelter in the fall but has since moved to an apartment.
(Jeff Swinger photo)
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        The special tutoring services are offered at nine homeless shelters throughout the city and stem from a 5-year-old collaboration between Cincinnati Public Schools and Project Connect, an organization devoted to homeless children.

        But local educators and homeless advocates are wondering whether they can keep pace with the skyrocketing homeless childpopulation. Such a group was virtually non-existent before 1980 and now numbers more than 1 million nationwide, say national advocates. But a federal agency estimates there are about 600,000 homeless children, the homeless advocates said.

        There are about 400 homeless children on any given night in Cincinnati, according to the Greater Cincinnati Coalition for the Homeless.

        “The schools try to do the best they can,” said Debbie Reinhart, Project Connect coordinator. “My belief is we're hitting the tip of the iceberg.”

        The reauthorization of the federal McKinney Act, which provides educational assistance for the homeless, will be key, she said. The legislation is up for debate this spring in the House.

[photo] At Bethany House, a shelter in Fairmount served by Project Connect, Lashaya Taylor, 19, puts 3-month-old Marquise down for a nap.
(Tony Jones photo)
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        Legislators, who have been waning in their support, will determine how much money is budgeted for organizations serving the homeless and whether Project Connect can continue all of its services, which include homework clubs, summer programs and vigilance in identifying and helping homeless children.

        The agency received $108,864 in McKinney funds this year. In 1996, the agency's first year, the amount was $169,000.

        The drop already has caused Project Connect to close two homework clubs and shorten its hours.

        In the interim, more children are becoming homeless, ccording to Massachusetts-based Better Homes Fund, a non-profit group tackling homelessness.

Families on the move
   Greater Cincinnati homeless numbers
    In March 2000:
   • 920 in shelters.
   • 292 in soup kitchens.
   • 121 on the streets,
   Total: 1,333.
   • Men: 42 percent.
   • Women: 26 percent.
   • Children: 32 percent.
   • African-American: 68 percent.
   • Women-headed families: 95 percent.
   • Average age of these women: 28.5 years.
   • How many children did they have: 2.29.
   • Without high school diploma: About 66 percent.
   • Average age of child in shelter: 8.5 years.
   Source: Greater Cincinnati Coalition for the Homeless
Homeless children in school usually ...
   • Change schools seven to eight times a year.
   • Are two to three grades behind their peers.
   • Live in crowded residences.
   • Have no space to play at home.
   • Have no space to study or be alone.
   • Come from a residence where domestic violence prevailed.
   Source: Project Connect and National Center for Homeless Education
        At IHN's homework club last week, the 6-year-old kindergartner hugged certified teacher Wini Bruening when she helped her do her coloring and math homework.

        The girl was enrolled at Oyler at the start of the year. In February, her mother moved the family to Georgia. It didn't work out. They came back. The shelter was the only roof they could find.

        Educators say children need a place to call home. Dislocation, which can be exacerbated by hunger, sleeplessness and domestic violence, is bound to disrupt their education, they said.

        Then there's attendance. Mrs. Bruening confirmed that attendance is sporadic at IHN's homework club and turnover is constant.

        “My role is to provide a comfort zone,” she said.

Depression recalled

        Before the 1980s, the Great Depression was the only era when there was an obvious number of homeless children, said Ellen Bassuk, president of the Better Homes Fund.

        Ms. Bassuk said a lack of affordable housing, increasing gap between the rich and poor and an increasing number of single mothers caused the young homeless population to burgeon.

        Homeless families now comprise 40 percent of the homeless population, she said.

        “All you have to do is open a shelter and it's full,” she said.

        The McKinney Act is crucial, she said.

        “It's not enough (but) it's a good start. (Homeless children) have to be able to go home where there is no violence and they can do their homework,” she said.

McKinney allocations

        This year, the McKinney Act provided $35,000 to Covington Public Schools. Last year, it was $56,000.

        The money allows the district's homeless coordinator, Sherry Madrick, to identify homeless children, increase awareness of their special needs and act as a liaison between the shelters and the school district.

        There have been 300 homeless children attending Covington schools this year. The number was 72 at this time last year.

        There's no way the district could target their needs without the McKinney funds, she said. However, she wishes that there was enough money to heighten awareness among homeless parents about what an education can do.

        “They care, but it's not the priority,” she said. And the children's “focus is not getting to school every day and getting their homework done. Their focus is getting something to eat and where are they going to stay every night.”

        Ken Jump, principal of Central Fairmount Elementary School, agreed that the McKinney funds are needed. They allow the school to work with Bethany House, a shelter in Fairmount.

        “Oftentimes there is a self-esteem issue that makes them difficult to fit in,” Mr. Jump said. “They do have special needs.”


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