Slideshow: The guardian angel
Most homeless parents interviewed for this story requested anonymity to protect their children's confidentiality.
It was just before noon on a cool Monday morning when Maureen Chase spotted a boy about 10 years old walking alone through the parking lot of a low-cost motel in Eureka. She caught up with him just as he entered a ground-floor room.
"Hi. I'm Maureen, and I work with Eureka City Schools," she said to a man who held the door open. "I was just wondering why your boy isn't in school."
"It's vacation week," said the man, looking down at the boy, who wagged his head in confirmation. Behind them, another man watched TV in the small room.
"I'm afraid vacation is next week," said Chase, smiling broadly to soften the voice of authority. She pulled out a card that identified her as director of the Homeless Education Project and offered to drive the boy to his school so he wouldn't miss the whole day.
Looking embarrassed, the man said he was the boy's grandfather. "He's got a doctor's appointment later. His mother's going to come and take him," he said. Chase agreed the appointment should be kept. Then she pitched her program.
"We're set up to help your grandson with whatever he needs to stay in school, so I'd really like you to come in to see me sometime soon," she said. "We can hook you up with all kinds of good stuff like vouchers for shoes and clothing, bus tickets, a bike to get to school, a backpack, whatever he needs."
By now, both grandson and grandfather looked more relaxed and interested, and the elder promised to get in touch. After jotting down their names, the boy's school and the motel room number, she said goodbye.
As she walked back to the car, Chase said this wasn't her usual way of contacting homeless families. "They often come to me because they hear about the program. I'm also networked with the shelters, so if they have new families with kids in tow, they fax me," she said. "Sometimes I get calls from Child Welfare Services or food bank workers [who will say] 'We've got a family with four little kids and none are in school.'" Teachers and school secretaries call her when they learn that a student's family has become homeless. But it's not unusual for her to meet families with kids at the inexpensive motels in Eureka, or at the Free Meal lunch sponsored by St. Vincent's on Third Street. "When I have time to just walk around [such places], I usually get tons of business."
As much as Chase would prefer otherwise, there is a growing demand for her program, which is dedicated to ensuring that homeless kids in Eureka enroll, attend and succeed in school. By late March, her list of clients had reached 472, and she predicts that by the end of the school year it'll rise to about what it was at the end of last year: 673 out of a student population of 4,500. Because some families get housed or leave the area during the school year, the actual number of homeless kids in the district at any one time is less - maybe half to two-thirds of the annual caseload, according to Chase. But what's truly disturbing is the growth in homelessness. In the Homeless Education Program's first year - 2001-2002 - the program served 269 students. The 673 homeless students aided in 2005-2006 represented a 150 percent increase in just four years.
"It's shocking, isn't it," said Chase. "When I was in high school I don't think we even had the word 'homeless.'"
Under a hazy spring sun, the asphalt basketball court was a sea of skipping children. "Tidal wave!" yelled a teacher, and the children stopped and spread their legs to straddle imaginary surfboards, stretching out their arms to balance in the surf.
"Now tippy-toes," the teacher said, and the children pranced around like drunken ballet dancers. "Look at how high I can stand!" cried a red-haired girl whose ankles were as straight as poles.
"Lifeboat!" The kids sat in rows on the ground, rowing for their lives. "Now hop!" Dozens of little heads bobbed around the court. "Submarine!" Down on their backs they went, each with one leg extended up like a periscope.
When this energetic and creative play session was over, the children lined up and walked buoyantly back to their room. Their teacher read them a story for a few minutes before they went off to the library for more reading. These were all parts of a normal, healthy school day at Grant Elementary School at the south end of G Street in Eureka. And what has also become part of "normal" here, and at other Eureka schools, is the fact that more and more students don't have a steady home.
"A typical scenario is a blue-collar family that is doing fine," said Principal Bill Cannady. "Then there's a marital break up, the loss of two jobs, and they're homeless. It happens all the time."
Third-grade teacher Carol Goodwyn has had several homeless students in her classes. Sometimes she hears about the child's status from Chase in an e-mail. "Often the kids will tell you, 'We're not staying in a house anymore,'" she said. "And sometimes the parents will say something."
When a child's family is homeless, her school experience becomes all the more important, according to Goodwyn. "Children are pretty resilient; however, they become more fragile when their situation is in an uproar," said Goodwyn. "At school, they know they're going to get breakfast. They know X, Y and Z are going to happen. They're going to get a snack and lunch, and they will be safe and respected."
Serving homeless kids has put new demands on Grant and other schools, according to Cannady, who previously worked at Jefferson Elementary and Eureka High. "I don't mean to sound so dire about it, but it's changing the way we run our schools," he said. "If we don't provide adequate support for them, the system will have indeed failed."
Transportation is the top challenge. School buses now stop at the Multiple Assistance Center shelter near Target and the Serenity Inn, a motel for recovering addicts and homeless families. Cannady often drives his own car to pick up students at motels and on street corners.
The school also relies on Chase to arrange transportation and provide things like backpacks, school supplies, special tutors, laundry and clothing vouchers. "All of Eureka City Schools are working on this issue," said Cannady, "but she's the glue that holds it all together."
Back at Chase's office, she showed me her computer databases on the condition that I treat the information as confidential. Some of the children on the lists were living in vehicles, campgrounds or places unknown. Others were doubled up with relatives or friends, living in motels, shelters or temporary foster care.
"We work with the federal definition of homelessness, which is lack of a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence," said Chase. "A lot of these families go from shelter to car to doubled up. They're sleeping on floors, living in crowded conditions. It gets very stressful for the families and it's hardest on the kids."
"Some of the kids I've dealt with have been homeless since birth, others are just passing through town," she said. Cuts in welfare benefits, low wages and high housing costs are mostly responsible: "In the last 25 years, welfare benefits have decreased 50 percent in real dollars," while housing costs have increased dramatically. "I just talked to a mother who brings in $555 a month on welfare for her and her child. ... Minimum wage jobs pay about $700 or $800 a month after taxes. There's very little housing that's affordable for people with those kinds of incomes."
In some families, addiction and mental illness play damaging roles, too. Chase has seen parents scrape together money, get an apartment, then lapse back into homelessness again within a year. "Those dysfunctional issues keep raising their head," she said. That's one reason her program, which is both mandated and funded by the federal government, allows her to continue working with a newly housed family for up to one year.
When I visited Chase in her office, she had just gotten a call from a parent in her program. The woman was stranded with a broken-down van in a campground. She was desperate for food, and she was unable to drive her kids to their schools in Eureka.
Chase gathered some city and county bus tickets, then we drove to Food for People, where she picked up three boxes of groceries and a couple bags of bread. As we headed toward the campground, thick clouds were building in the west and the wind was picking up.
At the family's campsite, the mom and two of her kids came to greet us. As the kids helped load the food into a low-slung complex of tents and tarps, Margie* agreed to talk, but only away from her kids. The rain started coming down, so we loaded into her 15-year-old American-made van. There was a coffee maker set up neatly on the floor, a jumble of clothes and blankets in the way-back. An electric heater powered by the campground's electricity kept us warm.
"That tarp is not really big enough," said Margie, watching her kids climb into shelter. "I need to find a bigger one. In weather like this, we sleep in here because it's warm with the heater. That beats them all getting pneumonia."
Margie didn't want to discuss how she and her kids became homeless. She said they'd come from out of state, where they'd always had a steady roof over their heads. Chase met them last September when they were camping illegally in Cooper Gulch.
Getting housed again seemed a distant prospect to Margie. She doubted there was a landlord willing to rent to them without a "God-awful deposit." The Multiple Assistance Center wasn't acceptable to her because "they pry so far into your life and try to control you." She said welfare-to-work rules actually dissuaded her from seeking a job. "The minute you get a job and you earn a penny, out the door goes your food stamps," she said. "They don't give you any leeway. Sometimes you need that extra help for another month or two."
Chase asked Margie whether she'd made another appointment at the Bridge House, a transitional living facility that offers more independence than the MAC. Margie was silent and struggled to control her tears.
"Margie has so much on her plate," said Chase to me. "She had an appointment, then her van broke down." Then to Margie: "Let's make another appointment and I'll plan on being here to take you there."
Chase then shifted the conversation to one of Margie's successes: getting her kids to school. "Her kids do real well in school because she gets them there," said Chase.
"Susan* is still on the honor roll, and my son is getting pretty good grades, I think," said Margie. "To me school is important. If you don't get an education, you don't get nowhere.
"Maureen has been so helpful. She helped me talk to the Eureka City School bus drivers, so now I can call them and say 'I can meet you at 8th and G at this time. ... She's helped me get school clothes, bus tickets, shoes for the kids. She even came out last time to give me a jump."
"Margie does her part," said Chase. "She just needs a break, here."
As Chase explained later, while her program exists to serve kids its focus is usually on their parents. "The parents are the ones who take care of the kids," said Chase. "They know when their kids need help. Kids, especially older ones, have a lot of pride and they won't ask for things or even know what they need. They might even be happy not being in school. But their parents know they need to be, and they know when they need things like clean clothes, shoes or a new backpack.
"I'm kind of a bridge from the school district to these parents. They feel a little disenfranchised, a little intimidated. They sometimes don't carry positive attitudes toward the schools. I put a face on the school district for some of these guys. I let my genuine caring show and listen to their situations empathetically.
"Once we do get them connected to the schools, they experience first-hand the wealth of services, the great teachers and programs. Then their attitudes soften and they become really supportive of their kids' school experience."
With her kind eyes and attentive manner, Chase seems the ideal person for the role of bridge builder. But she can also be firm when she encounters parents who balk at sending their kids to school. "I say 'Unfortunately, it's the law,'" she said. "I tell them that if they're on public assistance and their kids aren't in school, their public assistance can be taken away." Then she tells them about all the things Eureka City Schools can provide to help their kids get to school and do well there.
But she finds that in most cases, parents are eager to have their kids in school - a perception shared by teachers I spoke with.
"In the past I became really attached to one little girl I had," recalled Carol Goodwyn. "Her parents were separated and both were homeless. Yet they were trying very hard to co-parent the child. ... The father came in for parent conferences, while I would meet the mother at the Starbucks in Target. It was heartwarming to see the love and commitment of these two parents."
Warren Blinn, a fifth-grade teacher at Alice Birney Elementary School, agreed. "I've had many parents of homeless students who were absolutely responsible about caring for their kids, making sure they got medical care and did their homework," said Blinn. "They attended teacher conferences regularly and responded to my notes. They were wonderful, loving parents who were just down on their luck.
"I've also seen families that seemed to have everything going for them, professional parents with a nice home, but things at home were dysfunctional."
Chase said that not all school personnel are as understanding. She has had to fight the perception among some that homelessness equals neglect. "Just because a family is homeless doesn't mean they don't care about their kids and that they're not an intact family," she said. "The fact is that even though some kids may be living in a van, peeing in a jar and scrounging meals, they still have the essential love and irreplaceable connection with their nuclear family. Being homeless is not against the law."
With its contemporary design and bright colors, The Multiple Assistance Center near Target looks more like a new office building than a homeless shelter. Inside, the atmosphere is brisk and upbeat. In the reception area, residents chat with staff before walking to their respective wings: single men and single women on the right, families on the left.
When Chase and I walked in, she met a mother who had just talked to her on the phone a few days before. The woman was excited to meet Chase face-to-face but her teen daughter showed little emotion behind her sunglasses until Chase mentioned that Homeless Education Program could provide her a voucher for new shoes at Payless Shoesource. "Cool, I could use some new shoes," she said smiling.
Back in the brightly lit common area, Eric Albertson was bagging up trash from the lunch service. After he washed his hands, he sat down on one of the couches and described how he and his five children ended up at the MAC.
They'd lived in Humboldt County before, but moved to a small town in Oregon in 1999. About three years ago, the children's mother abandoned the family, then, last year, she died. "When she passed away, the kids started getting flack in school," said Albertson. "It was a small town, she had a drug problem and everybody knew." They headed south to Eureka for "a fresh start, to get them away from the teasing."
Upon arriving, Albertson couldn't find an apartment that he could afford on his disability income and the children's survivor benefits. He was burning through his savings renting $60-a-night motel rooms when he applied to the MAC. He was fortunate to wait only a month; typical waits are two to three months. "We were pretty lucky or we would have been on the street," he said.
After enrolling his kids in school, the younger children settled in quickly, but his two older ones had a difficult time at their new middle school. "They were pulling the sickness thing for a while, but I knew there was something more than just that," said Albertson. "They were just not wanting to go to school. Maureen was great with going and making sure we got with the [school] counselor," to discuss the children's issues.
It turned out the kids were being teased and ostracized. "It's scary arriving at a middle school mid-year. It's hard for the most stable and settled kids," said Chase. "All the cliques are already formed and the new kids are branded. We modified their schedule but mostly we just listened to them and empathized."
"They said that the teasing has all kind of settled down now," said Albertson.
"Oh, that's good," said Chase.
Chase told me later that these mid-year school changes were a recurring problem for homeless kids. Because of the emotional strain, students lose as much as six months of academic progress with a mid-year school switch, according to Chase.
Fortunately, the federal No Child Left Behind law requires nearby school districts to work together to help transient homeless students complete their school year at their original school whenever possible. She described a Eureka homeless family that recently found an affordable apartment south of Eureka in a new school district. "No Child Left Behind said those kids have the right to remain in their Eureka school of origin for the year, and that both school districts must work together to provide transportation to make sure that happens," said Chase. "It's a good law."
As for his family's future, Albertson is optimistic that living at the MAC will enable him to save enough for rental deposits and prepare the groundwork for winning a landlord's confidence. "I'll be able to save up money. Plus I'm taking advantage of the classes they have here," on how to be a good tenant.
He hopes to have a place by summer so he can bring down his oldest daughter who is living with a family friend while she finishes her freshman year of high school.
Permanent housing is Chase's wish for all her families. "What homeless kids need most of all is a home," she said. "But there's such a huge gap between the income levels of these folks and the cost of housing that it makes it very difficult."
She works closely with the Serenity Inn and other shelters and transitional living facilities, particularly the MAC, which houses up to 12 families at a time. She keeps a large cabinet there, stocked with backpacks, school gear, grooming and hygiene supplies and other necessities for families with school-age children.
The MAC does not work for every family, however. Like Margie, many people find the center's involvement in its clients' personal and financial affairs too intrusive. While there's no rent charged, tenants must save 80 percent of their income to put toward future rent and deposits, as well as past debts and overdue fines. Parents have to closely supervise their children. No visitors are allowed, and there are curfews: 10 p.m. weeknights, 11 p.m. weekends. "We ask folks to do a lot to stay here," said Simone Taylor, director of family services for Redwood Community Action Agency, the nonprofit organization that runs the center.
"This place really works if someone is ready to make that transition from being homeless to being permanently housed, but the key is you need to be ready," said Chase. "They ask that you develop the functional skills needed to be permanently housed. And they ask that you participate in activities to develop those skills."
The MAC houses up to 34 single men and women as well. And according to Taylor, having children there draws out the nurturing instinct of many of the unrelated adults. "The single people love watching the kids and helping out," she said. "A couple volunteer in the kids' room to help prepare classes. One guy is teaching art to kids as well as adults. Their capacity to give is just expanding. It's very cool to see."
The center has unquestionably been the launch pad for more than a few success stories among homeless families. In Taylor's office, she and Chase discussed some of their alumni. "One guy was living out in his truck and out in the park for a while with his kids," said Taylor. "Now that same dad is a real leader in our community working on drug and alcohol issues and housing issues.
"Another lady was with us for 12 or 13 months, a relatively long time. She was really scared [at the beginning] and she blossomed as a mom, as a woman, as a contributor to society."
"I think of her," said Chase. "What a change. Do you remember what she was like when she came here? A scrawny, drug-addicted woman. To see her now, so regal and centered. It was the MAC that made the difference."
One family with three children in the Homeless Education Program recently moved into their own apartment after four months at the MAC. Two years ago, Walt*, his wife, and three children were knocked out of their apartment in Riverside by a one-two punch: His disability benefits were cut in half and she became so depressed over her father's death that she lost her job as a custodian.
Expecting a disability settlement, they convinced their landlord to float them for a couple months. But then the landlord's patience ran out. "We were doing everything we could think of. We'd go to church, the whole bit," said Walt. "We were really trying.
"We lived in our Ford Explorer, five people and two dogs. We were also in and out of shelters." Because of family friction, doubling up with his wife's relatives wasn't an option. "My parents lived in a little fifth-wheel, so they couldn't have us all over."
Burned out and depressed, the family decided to look for another community to live in. They traded Walt's Ford for a Nissan Maxima and some cash, then drove north, ending up in Humboldt County.
"We stayed at campgrounds from Garberville to McKinleyville," said Walt. A winter shelter voucher allowed them to stay at Serenity Inn for over a month, but when that ran out "we had to move out and move into the tents."
With help from Maureen Chase and her former educational liaison Anna Pizelo, they enrolled their kids at Eureka's Lincoln Elementary. "We wouldn't have been able to do it without Maureen and Anna," said Walt. "They helped us with getting the kids' birth certificates, helped us with the welfare system, getting the kids their gear and their supplies, vouchers for shoes and clothes, food assistance."
Walt said Chase and Pizelo also helped the family keep their spirits up. "When I got out there speaking with people like Maureen and Anna and the other folks at the community centers ... I didn't feel like we were all alone and lost," he said.
The family got on the waiting list for the MAC last summer. But when their name came up, they faced a dilemma. Their pet Chihuahua couldn't move in with them. "Maureen went out of her way to find a foster parent for our pet," said Walt.
After spending four months at the MAC, "we were able to save up some money ... and my settlement finally came in," said Walt. "That's when we got an apartment. Once we were able to do this stuff, Pamela* was able to get her head cleared and get things back together, and she started working last week.
"The kids love having our own apartment again. We have our own shower, the kids can play their video games, watch TV [and use the bathroom] without having us hold their hands. The heat thing is real nice, too. It's freedom, having an apartment again."
As the traffic rushed by on Broadway, David* settled into the passenger seat of a parked car and described to Chase and me how he gets his four kids, 11 to 16, to and from their four different schools. "It used to be hard, but I've been at this for so long that we've kind of gotten into a routine," he said.
Depending on where the family spends the night, the kids may walk to school or take a school bus. Sometimes a friend's car is available for David to drive them. But he never drops them off in the 20-foot delivery van that is their home. "They won't let me bring that van within a quarter mile of their schools," he said. "It's embarrassing for them. The other kids have such different lives, and kids can be mean."
Getting them home is more complicated. Because of parking laws and vigilant police officers, David can't say for certain where the van will be when the kids get out of school, so every morning they make arrangements: meet at the Boys & Girls Club; call from a payphone (when David's cell phone has minutes); meet at a friend's house. His two teenagers have lately been spending nights at friends' homes.
One thing David doesn't have to contend with is complaints from his kids about going to school. "If they didn't have school, they wouldn't have much to do during the day," he said with a laugh. "So they're really into their school."
The family's homelessness sojourn began seven years ago when their Eureka landlord evicted them after David complained about peeling lead paint. Cars, trailers and vans have been their homes ever since, a lifestyle for which David's mechanical aptitude is a vital asset.
"I pulled that van out of the sand and put it together," he said, pointing at the vehicle parked nearby. "I registered it and fixed it up to live in," with beds and a propane stove. "I've seen other families try that. They buy a van and think it's going to be a roof for a while, then it breaks down and ends up in the impound yard."
But there are definitely downsides. "I break the law every night we sleep within the city limits," said David. "I've got an astronomical amount of tickets over the seven years."
But he said several police officers who know the family make a point of being kind to the children and giving David some leeway on parking tickets. "My kids will tell me, 'A cop stopped and talked to me, but he was really nice. He asked how we were doing?'" said David. "I think they give me a little bit of slack because they see the kids going to school and not out doing anything illegal."
He has tried repeatedly to get an apartment. "I've been looking for years around here, but for a two or three bedroom place, it's almost three grand [with deposits, first and last month's rent]," he said. "Most rental agencies wouldn't even consider my application. I have no recent history of renting. I'm unemployed and we're on welfare and SSI."
But David's hopes had revived lately after he heard about a three-bedroom house offered for $700 a month, plus a $1,000 deposit. He'd saved $900, and Maureen Chase, whose program has helped David's kids for years, had $800 available - contributed by local donors. Now he just needed to convince the landlord that he would be a good tenant.
"I think you're going to have to try to appeal to his compassion and understanding," said Chase from the back seat. "Give him a sense of your character, who you are, because I think you come off well."
With a secure home for his wife, Erica*, and kids, David was sure he could get a job in his field, carpentry. "Right now, there are too many things that would get in the way of me being able to stay on a job from 9 to 5." His wife's disability makes it hard for her to deal with people, especially in stressful situations, he explained. "Now there's no telling what's going to happen to her and them in the van when I'm gone," he said. "If we were to get in that place up there, I think I'd be able to become gainfully employed. I know I would. I'd go to temporary places if I had to and work in to a full time job."
Erica walked up to the car. "That apartment got rented," she said.
"Oh did it?"
"Tony came down to tell us," she said. "They rented it to that man with section eight."
"Oh well, it wasn't meant for us then," said David. The couple discussed their kids' after-school schedule, then Erica walked back to the van.
"That's too bad about the apartment," said Chase. "Let's keep looking though."
"I'm not going to let it stop me."
"I'll earmark that money."
"A place would be a whole lot easier for me. A home base where you know your family is safe. Then I could go out and get a job, which would be like a vacation for me."
"Being homeless is a full-time job," said Chase.
"It is. And you get complacent with the way things are," said David. "Things become easier because they become routine. You find yourself not going out after those goals or even being able to think about them anymore. ... Then something like this house that got rented comes up and you get enough drive to save up the money.
"I don't stand a chance to rent a place unless I find [a landlord] I can talk to face to face and eye to eye. Someone who will accept the money and give me a chance to prove that I'm a good tenant, that I pay my rent. That would get us off the street, but how do you find those guys?"
"Well, we'll find one," said Chase. "We will."