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Helping with homework when they don't have homes

On a gray and drizzly afternoon, Harry Brown walked into the YWCA emergency shelter. Several children were waiting for him, sitting quietly on the donated furniture, some clutching baby dolls to their chests.

Toting a portable Macintosh computer, Brown ushered them into a study room. Soon they were learning word games on the computer, writing on the blackboard and drawing clowns on construction paper.

"I want them to have the best education," said Christine Dove, mother of two of the children, who came to the shelter after fleeing a bad marriage in the Midwest. "I want them to be something when they grow up."

It is Brown's job to make this happen.

At 32, he is responsible for teaching and providing social services to Pinellas County's homeless schoolchildren.

But he reaches only a fraction of those in need. School officials estimate that of the county's 100,000 public school children, more than 2,000 will be homeless in the course of a year. On any given day, they say, there are more than 300.

Forget about home computers and weekend excursions to museums. Homeless children often lack so much as a quiet place to study or a decent pair of shoes.

"I graduated from high school here, and I never realized the depth and breadth of the homeless problem," said Brown, who took this $27,950-a-year job less than two years ago after teaching high school social studies.

"What saddens me is that the longer I do this, the more I realize that this is just the tip of the iceberg."

Mixed up geography

The words were sharp and clean, arranged around a pencil drawing of a young girl with long brown hair.

"Annie Oakley was born in the United States of Europe," the essay began. Its 10-year-old author, a tall, thin girl with a sweet smile, seemed clueless about her mistake.

With some coaxing, Brown set her straight. He had her locate the United States and Europe on a globe. He talked her through her writing assignment. Before long, the child had dashed out a page-long composition about the legendary markswoman.

"How are things going?" he asked, as he kept a careful watch on her spelling and punctuation. "Still living with your cousins? How did you get here this morning?"

Small wonder the child had her continents confused. Her family has lived in five different homes since Christmas and she has attended two different schools.

She was one of about a dozen pupils Brown saw on this day. As he does nearly every day, he spent the morning and early afternoon at an elementary school and the afternoon at a shelter, continuing to work with some of the same children. At the shelters, he also makes contact with other children who might otherwise slip, unnoticed, through the school system.

Brown's other pupils that day included two second-graders who were reading first-grade story books, a third-grader who was completing a health lesson and another third-grader who was writing a composition about a family of pandas.

They answered questions about separating food from household chemicals, even though they might not have kitchens of their own. Although a backyard pool is probably pure fantasy, they learned about swimming safety.

"Why might there be a sign that says, "No diving'?" Brown asked.

"Sharks!" one child said.

"Alligators," the other said.

As he did with the 10-year-old essayist, Brown slipped in questions about their home lives. He learned that one 8-year-old child had had to call 911 when her mother had a seizure. Another was helping to care for a 2-year-old child in their transitional housing complex.

"Her mother is looking for a job," the girl said, almost whispering, keeping her eyes on her work.

Most of these children's parents declined to discuss the circumstances that made them homeless. For the most part, school officials said, the reasons have to do with the economy, drug abuse, or family turmoil that can include death, divorce or domestic violence.

"We've found two women living with 10 kids in one motel room, and then maybe a couple of teenagers out on the street," said Judy Hoban, who oversees the homeless project.

Help without stigma

Pinellas officials say their homeless project is the first of its kind in the state. It originated in 1989, funded by a federal grant, and began serving children in 1990. The grant pays Brown and his partner, social worker Helene Pierce, who acts as a liaison with the shelters and makes sure the children's families have access to social services.

Since 1990, similar programs have been launched in other counties, including Hillsborough.

The Pinellas program serves schoolchildren of all ages, although high school students are not always served by the shelters and can be harder to reach.

The mandate for such programs comes from the federal Stewart B. McKinney Act, which guarantees homeless children a free, appropriate education without stigmatization.

Striking this balance is tricky. Although Brown is assigned specifically to homeless students, teachers never refer to him as "the homeless tutor." In fact, Brown avoids the word homeless altogether. He introduces himself by saying, "Hi. I'm Mr. Brown. My job is to help all the new kids."

Even in Pinellas, one of the state's most affluent counties, there are a lot of these "new kids."

At Lakewood Elementary School, which takes pupils from the YWCA shelter, administrators estimate that of about 600 pupils who transfer in and out each year, 100 might spend time in shelters. Perhaps 100 more will spend time either in motels, friends' and relatives' homes or on the streets.

Brown knows one first-grader who changed schools five times in just over a year. Another, who was abused sexually, has moved eight times since 1989.

While some of these children succeed in school, they face disadvantages almost every step of the way. Many have trouble trusting adults or making friends. They lack self-esteem.

"A lot of them are shy or will not put forth as much effort as they could," said Willene Givens, Lakewood's principal.

Worn down and worried about basic survival, their parents seldom have much time to quiz them on spelling or to double-check their math.

"They are, at best, depressed when they walk in here," said Steve Wolf, the director of the YWCA shelter. "And the children, at first, are scared to death."

There are institutional barriers too. Not long ago, Brown says, the schools did not even want to register them for lack of a permanent address.

Even now it is hard to arrange tests for a homeless child with learning problems. They are placed on waiting lists with the other children, but by the time it is their turn, they often have transferred to another school.

Teachers, with crowded classrooms, seldom can give them the attention they need.

"The children have to keep adjusting," Givens said. "It's like changing jobs every month."

With so little continuity in their lives, the children welcome this man who spends time with them, both in their school and at their home.

And, however short his time with them, Brown gives the children the encouragement they would receive if their families were not in crisis.

"I'm very proud of the work you are doing," he told the third-grader who was working on the health lesson. Living in a shelter because of her mother's illness, the child had been in her current school just over a week.

"You gotta give me a double high-five here," Brown said before he walked her back to her class. "Great job. Great job."

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