Students wondering where they’re going to sleep at night may have trouble paying attention in class.
In Miami-Dade County, the number of kids without a home is in the thousands and growing.
The county school district counted more than 4,406 students who were homeless in the 2010-11 academic year. In Florida during the past five years, homelessness among public school students ages 5 to 17 jumped 84 percent.
During the 2010-11 school year, the most recent year for which statewide data is available, 56,680 students were reported homeless.
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That instability can affect kids’ grades and their emotions in class.
Eleven-year-old David Thomas and his eight siblings used to be included in those statistics.
“We had to go from school to school because my mama was on drugs and I did not like that because she was a good mom and I loved her,” David said.
Minnie Brown, 49, is a single mother in Miami with nine children. She always seems to be smiling, even when she’s crying.
“I grew up in the projects, around a lot of drugs and alcohol, and that’s why I thought that’s the way life was,” Brown said.
After being molested by a relative and witnessing the murder of her boyfriend, Brown turned to drugs to numb her pain. But in the process, her children were taken away and she could no longer afford her home.
Her children say they never saw their mother getting high. But they were with her in court, when she had to admit to using marijuana and cocaine.
Today the family lives in a three-bedroom apartment with help from the nonprofit Better Way of Miami.
Brown has been clean for almost five years, and the children have finally been able to be in one school for more than a year. Jerika Thomas is the oldest in the house. She just turned 18 and attends Miami Job Corps. She used to hate school.
“When we were homeless, you can’t focus normally because you’re worried about, what is my momma doing?” she said. “Are we going to be able to stay with them still? Are they gonna put us out? Are we going to a new school again? When I first stepped into school, I wanted to go home.”
But Jerika didn’t know where home was. Every few weeks, they moved to a different hotel or stayed with a different family friend. They were never at one school long enough to make friends.
When she wasn’t at school, she was responsible for taking care of her younger siblings.
“I had so much stress on me, sometimes I’d sit in class and I cried,” she said. “And my teacher would be like ‘What’s wrong?’ And I don’t talk, so I’m like ‘Nothing.’ It was really messing with my head.”
Like her siblings, Jerika was failing her classes because she couldn’t concentrate.
Teachers may not know students are homeless, because like Jerika, they’re embarrassed.
Miami-Dade County public schools counted 4,406 students who were homeless in the 2010-11 school year. Broward County has 1,964 students identified as homeless — down from 2010-11, with 2,115.
David Raymond, executive director of the Miami-Dade Homeless Trust, said the school district maintains data on homeless children, using “a different definition of homelessness” to include children living in households with more than one family.
In January 2012, the county’s total homeless population was 3,954, a 5 percent increase from last year. He says there were 868 homeless people on the streets of Miami-Dade County — but none in families and none were children under age 18. There were 3,086 people living in emergency and transitional housing, about half of them families with children.
Ronald Book of the Homeless Trust says the vast majority, if not almost all of the students considered homeless by the school district were often doubled up, but in some form of housing instead of living on the streets. Other accommodations often become available to prevent people from sleeping on the streets or in cars.
“My staff and I work every single day, making certain that everyone can get off the streets,” Book said. “Our priority has been to make certain that no child ever sleeps on the streets. It will never be OK.”
Tinika McIntyre, Brown’s case manager with Better Way of Miami, said services that organizations like hers provide are crucial, but it also takes dedication. There are 16 support services meetings every month that Brown must attend.
“In the substance abuse world, change is not easy, but she has learned change is necessary,” McIntyre said. “The common ground is that they all know where they’ve been and where they don’t want to go back to.”
Sterling Marshall is a former teacher and the family’s therapist. He says the only way to get students to open up is by showing genuine concern.
“If a child believes you to be an individual that cares and [is] approachable, they tend to tell you what’s going on with them, if they sense you care,” Marshall said. “And I think once you get that information, as an educator, you should be willing to make adjustments.”
Things like giving them more time for tests. He even paid for meals for one student. He said many of the children he taught and those he counsels now come to school hungry and can’t read or write at their grade level. He said he has seen too many of these students “fall through the academic crack.”
Marshall says he’s seen a huge difference in Minnie Brown’s family since they moved into their home. Brown pulled a thick stack of report cards out of her purse to show off rows of A’s and B’s.
“They go to school now, their grades are better,” Brown said. “And I thank God for the strength because I’m able to sit down with them and do their homework. I’m able to listen to what they’ve got to say.
“Today I’m not numb. I can feel them when they’re talking to me. Today I know I’m free, and today I know my children are at peace.”
Behind the television in their living room is a wall plastered with certificates from school. David’s favorite subject is science. And Jerika says she plans to go to college to become a pediatrician.