As family homelessness rises in Washtenaw County, educational project works to help kids stay in school
Melanie Maxwell I AnnArbor.com
Editor’s note: Members of the Brewer family are referred to by their middle names at their request.
For two years, Amina Brewer did her best to act like every other student at Ann Arbor’s Pioneer High School.
The energetic 17-year-old pulled strong grades, had plenty of friends and seemed as carefree as her classmates.
But she was hiding a secret from her friends.
When the bell rang at the end of the day, the reality of Amina’s life would snap into focus.
Her family was homeless.
“When I went to school, I’d just block it out,” she said. “I wouldn’t think about it. But when the bell rings, I’d be like, ‘Dang, now I have to think about it.’ I’d get on the bus and think about where I’m going to go that night.”
Amina, her mother Carol, brother Rasheed and two other siblings bounced from shelters to family members’ homes to a small apartment to more shelters to hotel rooms. Their only constant was school.
The Brewers aren’t an anomaly. Families are the fastest growing segment of the homeless population, with school officials in Washtenaw County reporting a 60 percent to 70 percent increase in the Washtenaw Intermediate School District’s Educational Project for Homeless Youth since last year. In 2009-10, the EPHY served about 600 families, Director Peri Stone-Palmquist said.
“Family homelessness is an invisible problem,” Stone-Palmquist said. “You’re not going to generally see a homeless mother and her children out asking for handouts, though I have seen it. They’re usually busy scrambling, taking care of their children and finding out where they’re going to sleep that night.”
One family’s story
After her family became homeless in 2007, Carol Brewer got on her knees daily and prayed.
Her family needed a home. Her children needed an education. Most nights, they all needed help finding food to eat.
Until 2007, the family lived in Monroe. Carol Brewer said she left an abusive situation with the children’s father that year and moved with her children to a shelter in Ann Arbor.
For nearly two years, they shuttled between Monroe, Ann Arbor, Dexter and Saline in search of permanent housing. They stayed with friends and family members a good deal of the time.
Melanie Maxwell I AnnArbor.com
A single mother of five with back ailments that made just getting out of her chair a struggle, Brewer refused to allow her kids’ education to fall by the wayside.
“You want your kids to go to a good school. As parents, we want to give them the best, and education is not to be taken lightly,” she said. “As a parent, I felt my kids got to have a good education. Some schools have it and some don’t have what it takes and it’s unfortunate, but it’s true.”
Bettering her children’s education was one of the reasons Brewer moved her family from Monroe to Washtenaw County, where she attempted to work two jobs to raise money to move out of a shelter.
She eventually raised enough money to get an apartment in Dexter. She did custodial work for Dexter Community Schools and worked as a direct care provider.
But as her health began to deteriorate, Brewer was forced to limit her work and filed for disability.
Costs piled up fast.
“I was just not working, not able to have a job,” she said.
Brewer and her family moved back into a shelter. Although the shelter system gave the family a place to stay, Brewer said the rules were impractical. At one local shelter, Brewer said her family was forced to leave because she made too many phone calls attempting to arrange transportation to work while her van was in the repair shop.
They kept to themselves while in shelters, doing homework in the cramped room that housed them. Amina, in particular, would eat her meals and study in the private room instead of going out into the common area with the rest of the shelter residents.
The family visited local libraries to read and get out of the shelter for a few hours.
“We’ve always been involved in libraries, always took trips there,” Brewer said. “The library was like the epitome of our existence.”
Money wasn’t tight — it was non-existent.
There were days when Amina went to school not knowing whether she would come back to the Victory Inn and Suites, where the family was staying in early 2009, to find all their possessions out on the street.
“The guy downstairs told us he would set our stuff out if we didn’t pay him for that day,” she said, adding it happened more than once. “I was thinking about it all day in school. Sometimes, I would stay at the hotel because I knew my mom couldn’t pay him. But this one time, I was zoned out all day and just couldn’t concentrate.”
To feed her kids, Brewer once went into a Subway restaurant and explained her situation to the workers there. She walked out with enough sandwiches to feed her family dinner that night.
“I had to feed my children,” she said, through tears. “I need to make sure we never, ever go through that again, and I want to help people who do. It’s horrible, the stuff that’s taking place.”
“I didn’t know that,” Amina said as her mother collected herself. “It’s been hard. I’ve cried too. We’ve all cried.”
Asking for help in dire straits wasn’t an isolated incident. Brewer was given some food at a local Trader Joe’s after explaining she couldn’t feed her family. She said she used to go through the phone book and call every church she could find, begging for someone to help keep a roof over her children’s heads.
All the while, the Brewer children hid their home life from fellow students.
Rasheed Brewer, a high school sophomore, said he followed his sister’s example and did his best to forget about what was happening at home while he was in the classroom.
“I just put it out of my mind while I was at school,” he said. “I just did my homework in school. I’d stay after some times, but mostly just did it in class.”
Amina’s reputation among her classmates as a National Honor Society student allowed her to hide the fact that she was going to shelters to live — not to volunteer as her fellow students thought. “I’d get on the school bus with all my friends and they’d see me getting dropped off there,” she said. “Some kids thought stuff of it and asked, ‘Is she homeless?’ And other people would say, ‘Oh no, look at how she dresses.’ They thought I was really doing volunteer work.”
Keeping kids in school
One safety net the Brewers found was Stone-Palmquist and the EPHY.
Brewer first contacted Stone-Palmquist after the family moved into The Staples Family Center. The program provided transportation to get the children to school, school supplies — and most important to Brewer, an emotional boost in hard times.
“They’re the reason my kids stayed in school, because of the Education Project,” she said. “Through all this stuff taking place in my life, they kept the kids in school.”
As the family moved from town to town, the EPHY provided bus tokens for the children to take public transportation to school. When they were forced to move back to Monroe, the program gave Brewer checks for mileage to reimburse her the cost of driving them to school.
Those are among the services offered by the EPHY, along with training school staff on identifying and serving homeless students.
The qualifications for homelessness under the federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act of 1987 are much broader than the stereotypical view of a panhandler on the street or someone sleeping under a bridge.
They include children sharing housing with other families, living in shelters, living in motels, hotels, trailer parks or campgrounds, children whose primary nighttime residence isn’t considered a regular sleeping accommodation or children living in vehicles.
Azibo Stevens, Ann Arbor Public Schools’ liaison to the EPHY, said the broad definition makes it hard to identify families who may not know they are considered homeless. However, better training and increased knowledge about homelessness has contributed to the rise in families the EPHY serves.
“By making information more readily apparent, that allows people to see what the different definitions of homelessness are,” he said. “And that allows people to identify what the different types of homelessness are and know if they themselves are experiencing homelessness.”
Nationally, school districts can expect about 10 percent of students in free or reduced-price lunch programs are experiencing a transitional housing situation, Stone-Palmquist said.
Working with homeless students is a vocation close to Stevens' heart — he experienced a period of homelessness while he was a child. He said he’s able to reflect on that experience and relate to families who sometimes are reluctant to accept help.
“You kind of have little recollection moments when you’re talking to a family and you can tell they’re stressed,” he said. “I can understand the choices and why they’d do this and that because I’ve been in that situation.”
Working with shelters
One of the main ways families in transition learn about the EPHY is through referrals from homeless shelters in the area.
One of the shelters the EPHY works closely with is Alpha House, which only serves families with children and is one of the shelters the Brewers lived in.
Julie Steiner, executive director of Alpha House, said the shelter makes sure families are in the driver’s seat when contacting the EPHY and only contact schools if the family wants them to. Helping with children’s education is just one of the many services the Alpha House provides to families, which stay in the shelter for 90 days.
“We’re here to help,” she said. “Sometimes the family doesn’t want to tell the school, and if they choose not to tell the school, we have to figure out how we’re going to get what the child needs.”
Demand for shelter services has risen dramatically during the past three years, Steiner said. The waiting list, which previously contained 25-30 families, averages about 50 families and reached a peak of 120 families during the winter of 2009-10, she said.
Alpha House can only provide housing to 18 families at any given time. Steiner said less than 1 percent of families that enter the shelter have a parent who is employed, and the families usually have between two and four children.
Faye-Askew King, executive director of SOS Community Services in Ypsilanti, said the shelter provides an after-school program for school-age children and an eight-week summer activities program through a partnership with the University of Michigan.
She said the services help provide stability, which can greatly benefit students.
“We create a community structure and consistency because that’s what kids need,” she said. “They may not have had that, and when they do, then they can work out what they need to naturally.”
SOS Community Services, which has apartment units throughout Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti and can house 16 families at a time, also provides reading and self-confidence tests for students in transition to help ensure students keep progressing through school.
Stone-Palmquist said the shelters’ work referring and working with students is vital to the EPHY.
“The shelters are amazing,” she said. “It’s a part of their intake process when a family comes in, they automatically refer them to us so the family knows their rights and the services. They’re also referring families on the waiting list who might fall through the cracks.”
The bottom comes and goes
In October 2009, Carol Brewer’s prayers were answered.
Through the LIGHT program at Power Inc., a faith-based community development corporation, her disability checks and the help of landlord Tim Taritas, Brewer was finally able to afford rent on the house she dreamed of in Saline.
“I just thought, ‘Yes, this is it,’” she said. “We stood right here in the living room and I stood here and I cried. This is basically all I had asked for.”
Amina and Rasheed are now at Saline High School, where Rasheed transferred in March and Amina began the current school year. Amina is carrying a “B” average and is adjusting well, but Rasheed is still struggling to adapt.
“I have fun now,” Rasheed said. “I go places and do stuff with my friends, without just trying to get by.”
An older son attends Washtenaw Community College, an older daughter is married and lives in Monroe, and another daughter attends Saline High School.
Money is still an issue. Amina recently got a job at a store in Briarwood Mall and is helping to support the family with her paycheck.
The Brewers firmly believe the EPHY changed their lives. Without it, there’s no telling what may have become of their family, they said.
As Amina spoke, tears began streaming down her face.
“My tears don’t begin to show the emotion and pain and everything I’ve gone through,” she said. “Thank you is not enough. It’s not enough and they have transformed me as a person. This is all I’ve ever needed, something functional, with stability, and they can never understand.”
Kyle Feldscher covers K-12 education for AnnArbor.com He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.