North Carolina Coalition to End Homelessness

In emergency shelter, kids fret about school

By Tonya Jameson
tjameson@charlotteobserver.com
Posted: Saturday, Aug. 22, 2009    
 
When school starts on Tuesday, Sierra will be a senior. This is her time to tour colleges, giggle about prom and stress about graduation.
 
But Sierra's senior year wasn't supposed to start like this:
 
Living in an emergency shelter.
 
Sharing one room with her mom and sister.
 
Worried about whether she can afford college – any college.
 
“I know I should be happy because it's my last year,” said Sierra, sitting in the day care room of the shelter. “I've been struggling.”
 
Sierra and her family live at Charlotte Emergency Housing. She is one of nearly 3,000 students in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools who are considered homeless. When these students go to school Tuesday some might catch the bus in front of a cheap motel, vacant building or shelter. Others might arrive in a car they slept in the night before.
 
Nonprofits such as Charlotte Emergency Housing, Hope Haven and A Child's Place give homeless students the material necessities to prepare for school. But nothing can prepare them for the cruelty they may endure from classmates.
 
Sierra asked the Observer not to use her full name. She said her family moved to the shelter in the middle of her junior year. None of her friends knew she no longer lived in a house. The shelter has helped Sierra's mother create a plan to pay off debt and save money to move into a stable home. Sierra thought they would be gone by now.
 
“I definitely wanted to be out of here before school started,” she said.
 
Annabelle Suddreth, executive director of A Child's Place, isn't surprised by Sierra's secretiveness. A Child's Place provides education and support services for homeless children and their families in Charlotte.
 
“They really just want to be normal kids,” she said. “They want to blend in. They want to have hopes and dreams that all kids have. For their cover to be blown, to be homeless, risks all of that.”
 
Like many students, Sierra and her sister went shopping for clothes before school starts. Her mother's one check was all they had to spend. Donations from the community and businesses allow charities to provide students with necessities, such as uniforms and school supplies. Some agencies also have back-to-school parties and events to get the families excited about another school year.
 
“Once they go back to school they're not going to be outcast,” said Rafaela Sabedra, families coordinator at Hope Haven, a residential facility for homeless adults battling addiction.
 
In the courtyard at Hope Haven, Rhonda Helm's 6-year-old son ran around this week with other kids during the back-to-school cookout. Helms and her son are among the 11 families who live there. At the annual cookout, the kids received new bikes donated by the Marines, as well as school supplies, uniforms and shoes donated by BB&T. Helms, 33, has lived at Hope Haven for 2 1/2 years. She battles an addiction to alcohol and prescription drugs. She feels guilty she can't give her 6-year-old everything he wants, like Air Jordans.
 
“I try not to focus on it,” she said. “I'm powerless right now.”
 
Sierra, the 17-year-old at Charlotte Emergency Housing, knows how it feels to be powerless. She wants to get a job to help her mom. And she needs money for college. She doesn't even know what address she will list on her college applications. She wants to be a lawyer or maybe a real estate broker. Maybe, she says, she will start an orphanage.
 
“I like helping children,” she said.
 
Right now, Sierra wants to help her mom and then she can focus on her dreams.
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