I have never been homeless, but my dad was for a while.
My dad was a WWII vet, a tough SOB who, like many of his peers, saw and participated in things during the war that he didn’t want to discuss in retrospect. In fact, he wasn’t much for talking about any of the experiences that shaped his life; it was extraordinary when he would share anything with me about his life before I was born.
But I remember distinctly that he constantly told me things like “gambling is for suckers and fools,” that horse racing was “fun for people that don’t have to worry about how to take care of their family,” and that I needed to go to school, finish school and work hard because “a good education is your best bet if you want to have something to eat and someplace to sleep every day.”
I didn’t always understand what he was telling me or why it was important, so my mom would occasionally fill in some of the blanks for me, although she never offered much in terms of specifics either. My sisters and I had heard our parents laugh about the fact that my grandfather made his living as a horseman and in the 1920s had a stretch of tough luck when he not only didn’t have any winners, he didn’t have any horses. He apparently sold them to feed his family and realized afterward that without them he couldn’t. The family joke was that my grandfather was an early practitioner of the “Ready. Fire! Aim” approach to problem solving!
But after my dad died, my mom apparently felt a little freer to share some of what she knew, and it was only then that I learned how difficult life became for my dad because of that laughable twist of fate. I learned that when he was a boy, he slept in barn stalls more often than not, that he ate “leftovers,” which explained why he would never eat anything left over from the day before, and that he literally watched his older brother, Marshall, die at age 16 because he didn’t have access to health care. In short, I learned that my dad was a homeless child, that he saw and experienced human tragedy well before he went to war, and that when he came back from the Pacific theater, he made it his mission to be sure my sisters and I didn’t have to worry about being homeless ourselves.
Today, there are numerous organizations and people that work to reduce homelessness in America. I’d like to bring two in particular to your attention. The National Center for Homeless Education (NCHE) is a federally funded information and technical assistance center at the SERVE Center at the University of North Carolina in Greensboro. NCHE hosts the Homeless Education Listserv to help administrators, educators, advocates and service providers share information and ideas on meeting the educational needs of children and youth experiencing homelessness. The listserv is free; you can join it by visiting www.serve.org/nche and clicking on the “NCHE Products and Resources” link.
You will note while on the NCHE Website that they also have an online forum where educators working with homeless children and youth can share resources that have been helpful to them in their work. At the end of April, NCHE hosted a Web seminar to review strategies educators can use to determine whether a student’s living arrangement meets the McKinney-Vento (federal law) definition of homelessness. It is also accessible on the NCHE home page.
Another organization dedicated to giving voice and visibility to homeless children and youth is HEAR US. This organization believes that the issue of homeless families and teens has for too long been largely ignored, and it strives to inspire a “compassion epidemic” that will address immediate and long-term needs of homeless families and teens.
HEAR US was founded by Diana Nilan, a tireless advocate for homeless children, and has created a noteworthy product called My Own Four Walls. This acclaimed documentary was initially released in March 2007 and has been updated this year to include a McKinney-Vento liaison/educator series and a comprehensive discussion guide and study/action guide to go along with the 20-minute original DVD. You can learn more about this product and the organization at www.hearus.us.
As you might expect, the things I learned about my dad after his death left me bewildered for a time. It made me sad to know some things, angry to know other things and, although it sounds odd, proud overall. It has made me realize especially how much I have been blessed; my dad made sure I was not likely to be homeless. But there are hundreds of thousands of children in America who have not been so lucky, whose parents or grandparents are unable to provide them with the shelter and food most kids take for granted. And they need your help.
Please familiarize yourself with the rights of homeless students and make sure at the very least they have a safe ride to school. That safe ride would, of course, be on a yellow school bus!
Mike Martin is executive director of NAPT.