This week I participated in the best professional development I have ever had. For once we stepped away from report cards, common core standards, and data. Rather than seeing our students as numbers, we looked at who they are as people, as children. Our whole school’s staff participated in the “No House Tour” which was a half day tour through the homeless shelters and resources available in our county. Working in a school with 2 of every 3 students living in poverty, this couldn’t be more relevant.
Life in a Shelter – preconceived misconceptions
Before our tour, my experiences inside of a shelter were limited. Once I was in a shelter to drop off peanut butter sandwiches that we’d made at a Circle K event. I remember feeling intimidated by the building and the people. I assumed that people in a shelter were constantly moving in and out. Some may come back each night while others only came around when times were rough. I thought that people would all stay together in a few large rooms and sleep on mat, cots, tables, or whatever was available. I imagined them dark, dingy and feeling less than homey. I did not think they would be safe.
Well, we went inside 3 different shelters and each had their own look and policies. However, I life with my eyes open. I have a better understanding as to how the shelter system works. I can now slightly better imagine what our children go through when they have no place to call home.
Life in a shelter is much more structured than I had imagined. First, to stay in each of the shelters, residents were required to have a background check. Often times there is an intake interview and residents are contracted into an agreement. In exchange for shelter and meals, residents were required to set weekly goals, participate in therapy and do chores. Often there is an employment requirement, although it is wrong to assume that those living in a shelter are lazy and unemployed. The stays in the shelters we visited varied from 30 days (an emergency shelter) to 2 years (transitional housing). Residents were given rooms. Men were often in one area while the women and children another. To give you an idea of how they lived, think of your college dorm, now cut off a third of it and move a family of 3 or more into it. All of the belongings you have stay in that one room while you share a common area and kitchen (only equipped with a microwave and refrigerator). One shelter did match my preconceived notion a bit closer. Residents could stay in the building during the day with a single locker (which was kept unlocked and searched weekly) to keep their belongings. At night, specific churches opened doors where the residents could sleep at night on the floor with just a mat, blankets, and a pillow. As for the aesthetic, this was pretty spot on. These shelters, these rooms were not a home. The staff did all they could to make situations the best they could but they were dark, dingy, and did not quite scream welcome.
Life in a Shelter – Why It Matters to Teachers
Being homeless is traumatic for all members of the family. We get the children. When an adult has to worry where the next meal is coming from and how to keep a roof over their head, there is not time for nightly reading and extra attention. It’s not a lack of love, it is a matter of survival. Our jobs as teachers is to teach and more importantly to love and provide security to these children.
It is frustrating when we try to teach kids to be organized and there seems to be no support at home. Despite nightly reminders and friendly notes, folders do not get cleaned out. That adorable snowman project you were so excited about is less than cherished. Now I understand. If I had one locker or one room to keep every one of my possessions in, I wouldn’t waste it on school handouts or silly crafts either.
Last but not least, a shelter is not a friendly place to be. I have no doubt that all of the residents are grateful for the roof over their head and a warm meal in their stomachs. I can imagine the workers go to and from work, much like us teachers, feeling defeated and knowing so many people need them to do so much more. The shelters are temporary. Privacy is limited. Space is a rare commodity. A child is this environment will need extra care and love in the classroom, as much as we can give.
I hope I can have a little more patience with families and students during this new year. What’s difficult is while we can know where all others students live, teachers are not notified if a student is living in a shelter. We have to be detectives and hear that which kids do not always say. If you are blissfully unaware of what this life is like as I was, just keep an open mind. When given the chance to walk in someone else’s shoes or peek in their windows do so while holding your judgment at bay. There is so much we can learn from one another.