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Numbers Of Homeless Children Increase

GRACE E. MERRITT

June 21, 2011

NEW BRITAIN Alvarez Tutein keeps quiet about the fact that he is homeless when he's in school.

"I never know how anybody would react, so why tell them?" he explained.

Life is tough enough in middle school.

Alvarez, an approachable 13-year-old, looks like any other student at Slade Middle School. Dressed in a clean school uniform of khakis and polo shirt, his hair in neat dreadlocks, he looks refreshed and engaged. By all accounts, he is a good student and hopes to someday be a doctor.

But you can see that homelessness has affected him. He avoids making eye contact. He was suspended for fighting two weeks ago. He has a lot of built-up anger, and he yearns for stability.

Alvarez is one of 2,716 homeless schoolchildren in Connecticut, a number that has risen by 35 percent since the recession started. Homelessness takes a toll on school kids, often setting them behind in class and making it harder for them to open up and feel secure.

All it takes is one unfortunate twist of fate to wrench these children from stability, whether it's a parent losing a job, an eviction, a domestic violence problem at home or a parent's mental health issue.

In Alvarez's case, it was his father's death at age 36 that started the downward spiral six years ago. His mother, Felicia McCarthy, fell into a severe depression from the death and left her job as a tax administrator a year later. Soon thereafter, they lost the house in Hartford that they were renting to own and had to temporarily live with relatives.

It's been like that for the past three years, moving from one set of relatives or apartment to another, bouncing between Hartford and New Britain and, most recently, landing in Bristol.

Alvarez is tired of packing up his basketball posters, his bulletin board, his TV and his desk. He had to give up his dog when he moved from Hartford because it cost too much to feed. He didn't like having to make new friends all over again.

If he could have one wish, he said, it would be to have more stability in his life.

"I'd like a more stable household," he said. "I don't like to move a lot. I'd rather have a secure place to be at."

Through all the upheaval, one thing has stayed relatively stable in his life: school.

He has remained at Slade Middle School in New Britain since sixth grade, even when he was living in Hartford and now Bristol. That's because of a federal law called the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, which allows children identified as homeless to stay in their original school for the school year, even if they move.

Uniforms And Shampoo

Homelessness is a big problem in New Britain, where there are an estimated 350 homeless students. Joe Vaverchak, director of attendance and residency for New Britain schools, estimates that there might be more who are flying under the radar, such as high school students who were kicked out of the house and might be living with friends or other families.

The problem is so substantial that the New Britain school district has a program set up to hand out new school uniforms, backpacks, notebooks and hygiene supplies to homeless students. Vaverchak started the "Road to Recovery" program after he noticed that some homeless kids weren't going to school because they didn't have the "right" clothes or school supplies. Basic things like this sometimes make a huge difference in helping these children succeed, he said.

"Not only are they dealing with being homeless, but they might not have the right school supplies or they might not have washed their hair," he said. "It's a constant battle."

Only about 35 percent of homeless families ever go to a shelter, said Louis Tallarita, a consultant for the state Department of Education. Even if they did, most shelters have time limits for how long they could stay. Instead, homeless families are much more likely to seek refuge with family or friends temporarily what some describe as "couch surfing."

"What we see with homelessness is mobility and bouncing around," Vaverchak said. "It's sad, but I've seen kids move six times a year. What that does to a kid is terrible academically, socially and emotionally."

This kind of mobility can erase any academic gains made over the school year. Worries about safety and stability make it hard to concentrate in school and hard to sleep. Homeless children also tend to suffer from more health issues due to nutritional deficiencies and to have more behavioral health problems, experts said.

They also face some social challenges. The often long bus rides home cut them off from school dances, after-school activities and programs offered on Saturdays. Alvarez says he doesn't get to hang out with friends after school at the park.

"I sort of miss out on stuff," Alvarez said.

Homeless children often don't get what they need at home, either: nurturing, help with homework, regular meals and a regular bedtime, said Karen Kellerman, a social worker who works on truancy issues in New Britain schools.

And it's not uncommon for them to become angry as they try to deal with the embarrassment of being homeless along with losing their belongings and not knowing where their next meal is coming from, Kellerman said.

"They are often afraid to tell their families, but they'll let it out at school," she said.

Alvarez, who was recently suspended for a week for fighting, admits he sometimes has anger issues.

"It's a tough battle," Vaverchak said. "Some kids handle it better than other kids. Some kids want to shut down. Each one is so different. Every kid has a different issue."

A 'Village' Of Support

Some schools, such as New Britain, discreetly tell teachers, secretaries and social workers about a child's homelessness, so that they are aware of the situation and can offer guidance if the child seeks it.

All told, New Britain schools work with 15 agencies to help homeless students and their families with everything from counseling to temporary housing. Alvarez's mother describes them as a "village" and hopes other families will get the message that help is out there.

Despite the help, though, she still struggles. Her car broke down a few weeks ago, and she doesn't have the money to fix it. That makes it difficult to get to the grocery store.

"We are really living moment by moment, always thinking, 'How are we going to make it through the next 24 hours?'" she said.

Alvarez is looking forward to high school next year and plans to try out for the football and basketball teams. Despite the odds, he is doing his best to tough it out.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
     
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