December 19, 2011

For Michigan's homeless students, a storage room of backpacks shows community support

12-19-2011 Michigan:

Michigan's homeless students: Part 2 of 4 | Part 1

The small cluttered motel room is filled with all their worldly possessions -- bags of clothes from a free clothes locker, a fistful of utensils standing up in a Mason jar, a deep fryer, a toaster oven, a Crock-Pot, a box of food donated from a nearby church, and a backpack that links thousands of homeless children across Michigan.

The backpack was given to 11-year-old Amber Phillips by the Macomb Intermediate School District because she is a homeless student. She has been living in this motel for two months.

Amber rides the bus to school, just like any other student. The bus stops in front of the motel, although the district changed the bus route to protect her dignity, making her the first student picked up and the last student dropped off, trying to stop the other children from teasing her.

Unlike some homeless students who skip school because they are embarrassed about having dirty clothes, Amber always wears clean clothes.

Her mother, Donna Grant, does Amber's laundry in the bathtub, crouching on her knees and scrubbing with her hands. Then she hangs the wet clothing around the room to dry because the motel owner charges $5 a load.

On any given day, dozens of homeless families in metro Detroit find themselves crammed into small motel rooms.

They're wary of going to shelters for fear the family might have to split up. Or they simply don't know where to find a shelter. Or they want to maintain some semblance of the privacy they once had in their homes.

Some of these families might pay up to $800 a month for their motel room -- but moving to an apartment isn't an option because they don't have the money for a security deposit or the ability to pay a month's rent on the first day of every month. At a motel, they can negotiate payments week to week, sometimes day to day.

Amber shares the room with her mother and, occasionally, her mother's friend. She sleeps on the floor on top of a sleeping bag, which she uses as a mattress. She likes it on the floor. At least, it's her own space -- her one small slice of the world.

Amber gets free breakfast and lunch at the school, but Grant tries to cook supper every night in the room, although it took some experimenting to learn to cook mostaccioli in a wok.

Amber does her homework on a small circular table and practices her clarinet in the bathroom when it is raining or late at night. On warm sunny days, she walks across the parking lot and practices on a picnic table.

To get some privacy, she walks onto the second-floor walkway to talk to her friends on her cell phone, but she has never invited any of them over to visit.

Every morning, she walks down the wood steps and stands in the parking lot, waiting for the bus.

Grant, who lost her job cleaning a different motel, watches from a window, to make sure her daughter is safe. Cars and vans and buses hum down Groesbeck Highway, but she's lived here for several months and Amber doesn't hear the traffic anymore. The only source of light comes from the glow of the Roseville Motel sign and the advertisement: "3 Free Adult Channels."

But Amber's mother makes those inaccessible.

The bus stops. The door swings open. And Amber gets on an empty school bus, with that backpack slung over her shoulder.

Supplies not enough

Kathy Kropf, who is in charge of helping the homeless students in the Macomb Intermediate School District, opens a storage room and walks past shelves that hold almost 200 backpacks, some for boys, some for girls. All of the backpacks are new, with the tags still attached.

In the next few months, Kropf will give these backpacks to the next wave of homeless students, which she is certain is coming.

"They go out as quickly as they come in," Kropf said of the backpacks.

If there is one place that reveals the magnitude of the growing homeless student population in Michigan and how the schools are trying to help these students, it is here. In this storage room.

Because each one of those backpacks represents a child.

And each one of those backpacks shows how the community is trying to help.

"We are so blessed by community support," Kropf said. "Henry Ford Hospital in Macomb donated 300 or 400 backpacks."

The storage room looks like a small store. The shelves are stacked with children's reading books because Kropf found out it is hard for homeless students to move from location to location while toting around books.

There is a cabinet filled with socks and underwear. There are shelves stacked with paper and note cards and pencils and pens and calculators.

There are hats and mittens and folders and colored pencils and scissors and glue sticks.

There was a time when Kropf simply gave each homeless child a backpack filled with school supplies.

But she learned that wasn't enough.

"Then, schools started calling and said, 'It's February and Mary Sue is out here on the playground and she is wearing tennis shoes with socks with holes in them.'

"So we said, 'OK, we will start collecting socks and winter hats and gloves.' That's easy to throw into the backpacks. And we know how desperately they need clothes, not just at Christmas when everybody wants to help."

The number of homeless students continues to climb in Macomb County, growing from 385 in the 2006-07 school year to 877 last school year. "I've been doing this for 18 years, and the changes over the last few years has been the most dramatic," Kropf said.

She helped 413 homeless students by the end of November 2010. This year, the number soared to more than 600.

Most of the students she is helping are not habitual homeless students. During the last three years, 75%-80% of the homeless students have been new to the system. They come from middle-class families who have suddenly lost their homes. And these families don't know how to be homeless.

"It's the people who have had jobs for years," Kropf said. "Or both parents had jobs and one lost their job. We have parents working two and three jobs just trying to keep their rental."

Working, but homeless

Shannon Lopez, 38, has a job, making $10 an hour as a nursing aide working the night shift at an assisted living facility in St. Clair Shores, but ended up living at the Motorama Motel in Ferndale with her boyfriend, Tony Pascoe, 42, and her three children -- Sydney, 17, Ethan, 12, and Taylor, 7.

Sydney dropped out of school and is trying to get a GED.

The two boys sleep on the floor. Taylor's "territory," as he calls it, is on the right. Ethan's territory is on the left.

"They have their own spots," Lopez said. "They are warm and cozy on the floor."

The family is crammed into one room, with one bed. They sleep in shifts on the king-size bed.

"I sleep in the middle," Lopez said. "Tony sleeps over here. He sleeps while I'm at work and he's up with the boys during the day. We all have different positions on the bed."

At the start of the school year, Lopez was paying $700 a month to rent a three-bedroom house in south Warren. The boys walked to school, about a half a block, but she lost the house after squabbling with the owner about the lack of repairs.

When she tried to rent a four-bedroom house a few blocks away, she put down an $800 deposit, which she called a "fortune to me." Pascoe did some work on the new house to get it ready, helping to paint it, but they started haggling with the owner over how much the work was worth. They couldn't agree and ended up losing their deposit.

"I talked to the police, and they said I could take him to small-claims court, but that doesn't help me now," Lopez said.

They had been living on the edge, with no money saved up, no safety net. Pascoe, who worked in radio as a producer, is unemployed. They had no more money for a down payment, and suddenly, on Sept.1, they were homeless.

After staying for a week at a more-expensive motel in Roseville, they moved into the Motorama. It cost $175 weekly, $675 if paid by the month.

When somebody has a job but doesn't earn enough money to pull together a down payment to rent a house or apartment, families often end up living in motels because the payment can be more flexible, even though the motel can be more expensive than an apartment.

Boost in business

Phil Patel has been the manager at the Motorama Motel in Ferndale for eight years. He works with families who struggle to pay their bills. Some families pay day to day; others pay by the month; and sometimes, he lets a family stay, even if they fall behind a few weeks.

"Sometimes, they pay a month later," he said. "But no more than four weeks behind."

The increase in clientele has helped some motels.

"It's good for business right now," said Mark Gabrial, manager of the Knights Inn in Sterling Heights. "The families come and go. Some for a day, some for extended periods of time."

Some motels will take dogs but no children.

Some motels will take children but no dogs.

And Patel said that he will refuse to rent to large families, if they try to cram too many people into one room.

"Some people will have four or five kids and there is only one bed and there is not enough room for them," Patel said.

For more than a month, Pascoe drove the boys to school in a 1998 Chrysler Concorde. "It only took me eight minutes," Pascoe said.

But then the boys missed more than a week of school after the car broke down. Lopez was desperate and went to the Ferndale schools administration building. She admitted to being homeless and learned that her children were eligible to receive backpacks filled with school supplies, gift cards to Subway and Meijer, and hats, gloves and socks.

The boys also had the right, under federal law, to stay at the school they first attended, before they became homeless.

She could have enrolled her sons in Ferndale schools, but she chose to send them back to Macomb County because she felt it would give them stability.

"They have friends there," she said. "At least school is still the same."

Lopez works at night and sleep during the day. After coming home from school, the boys play at a park about a block away. Every day, they walk a mile to a library and play on the computers for free.

"It's not that far," Ethan said. "I walk at least 2 miles a day. To the library and back. I like everything. It's got books."
Where do you live?

Some kids at school ask Amber where she lives, and she has learned to divert the conversation. "I'm not telling you," she says. "You might stalk me."

She is at an awkward stage -- growing into the body of an adult, but still a kid. To escape the motel room, she slips out the door and goes down the stairs, walks across the parking lot and sits at a table, near the road, and sends text messages to her friends or listens to music, usually Rihanna or Eminem.

She stands on a piece of wood, walks across it like a gymnast, walks across the parking lot, flailing her arms like a goofball, smiling, listening on her phone, waiting for somebody to call.

"As long as I've got food, I'm OK with it," she said. "I'm happy."

But Grant is stressed out. She is out of cash and late with her bills. She is unemployed and can't pay the $180 weekly motel bill.

She doesn't want her daughter to know their situation, how close they are to going to a shelter or landing on the streets.

Amber is getting A's and B's, mixed in with some non-completes. "She is doing really well," Grant said, proudly.

Her daughter loves to read books. She's reading "Diary of a Wimpy Kid."

Someday, she wants to become an artist. A painter. Somebody who changes the world.

But more than anything, she wants a place to live.

"I'm just sick of this place," Amber said, making two fists and bringing them to her chest and squeezing her eyes tight. "It's like, 'Arrrrghhhh!' "

Bike is rent payment

In November, Grant had to leave the motel. She was $120 behind in rent and the motel owner kept Amber's Huffy bike as payment, Grant said.

"Amber is hurt," Grant said, "but I had to leave the bike."

Grant and her daughter are now doubled up with a friend in a studio apartment in Harrison Township, sleeping on the floor.

"I called the school and they didn't want her to switch schools," Grant said. "So she switched buses."

Even though Amber is now living in the L'Anse Creuse district, she still attends a Roseville school. A Roseville bus picks her up every morning and brings her home.

Amber turned 12 on Dec. 3.

"I did something tiny," Grant said. "I gave her some lip gloss, some dollar perfume from the dollar store. And I got a cake from the food pantry."

It was a yellow sheet cake. With no name.

Donna tried to put Amber's name on it, but it didn't really work.

They have no Christmas tree. But Amber decorated some pieces of paper and hung them in the window. ..Source.. by Jeff Seidel, Detroit Free Press Staff Writer

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