Caring for a steady influx of homeless, uprooted students
One way of looking at the operations of school districts is through numbers.
This week, in a classroom at a Hartford high school, a single number seemed to tell its own story: 796.
That’s the number of coats a group of volunteers and a district employee were sorting, organizing and boxing up to send to city schools. Most will go to students who are homeless or displaced, such as those who fled Hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico with nothing.
When it comes to helping these vulnerable students and their families, other numbers stand out too. Four city schools have food pantries. Six have health clinics. The district has $40,000 to spend each year to provide families with book bags, school supplies, bus passes and other necessities.
And when that money runs out and the shelters are full – and parents come to them with no place to stay – staff in the district’s Welcome Center will pool money to pay for a hotel for a family in crisis.
The Mirror sat down recently with Shelimar Ramirez, coordinator for homeless and displaced students for Hartford schools, and the person responsible for getting these children enrolled in school. Sometimes that’s as many as 350 students a year.
The takeaway: Housing stability is often fragile for families.
“Today it’s them. Maybe tomorrow it’s us. Don’t judge the book by its cover because you never know,” Ramirez said. “So today I have a job. Maybe tomorrow I will have no job.”
So the coat drive that you’re doing, does Hartford give free coats to its homeless students every year?
We started last year. This is a donation from the Dalio Foundation.
Today we are sorting the coats. The families that we first serve with these coats are the displaced and families that are experiencing homelessness. And then we divide them for the Hartford Public Schools, a little amount for each school for families identifying as low-income and really needing help.
This year we will be giving out 796 coats. Homeless families are the first families served. And because of the situation that we’re experiencing – you know all the areas affected through the hurricanes – those families qualify automatically under the federal McKinney-Vento Act, that is the federal law for homeless and displaced families.
Are there enough coats here for all the children who need one?
To be honest with you, no…
How many homeless students does the district have right now?
Right now, I have 94 students.
And is that high or low? How many does the district typically have?
Last year we closed with 235 throughout the year. The previous year we closed with 352. So it depends. You know some years we have more. Winter time is the time for the homeless, when we start receiving more, because families lost jobs, shelters are full, a lot of families are doubling up – meaning that they are living with family members or with friends. You know in order to be in a shelter the family needs to call 2-1-1; they need to complete their assessment. (2-1-1 is the state’s hotline for social services.) But to be honest with you – the shelters are full. So families need to find different ways to find housing.
And do you help them find housing?
To be honest with you, we don’t have resources … but we connect the families with 2-1 -1, and we help the families to complete that assessment. Most of these families, they don’t even have a phone. So, they can come to our Welcome Center and we help them complete the intake form.
You know sometimes they need a bus pass because they are walking. So we assist them with bus passes. Also, these families who have kids in the Hartford Public Schools, under the federal law, we provide the families with transportation if the student qualifies. We also assist with getting a school uniform, book bags and school supplies.
With the hurricane in Puerto Rico, has the district begun seeing an influx?
Yes. Starting last week until yesterday we received 24 new students from Puerto Rico. These families moved to Hartford. They are staying with family members.
Could you talk a little bit about the types of services that those students need compared to a traditional student enrolling in school?
These families have nothing because most of these families, they lost everything. Some of the students don’t even have paperwork like birth certificates, immunization records.
We received a letter from the governor and the State Department of Education (saying) that all these families will arrive to Connecticut – especially to Hartford – they can be enrolled immediately to school without any restrictions because they don’t have any documentation. Also, by law we require that every child has a physical in order to be in school. Obviously, we’re jumping that step, and we are moving forward. We have six health clinics in our schools, and we don’t charge [anything] to these families. So we’re just trying to remove barriers to all these students.
They arrive to the Welcome Center. Over there we place the student in school and the registration takes place in school. I always contact the schools, letting them know this is a family coming from X, Y, Z, so they are aware and so the family feels welcome.
You know most of these families don’t speak English. We have bilingual staff at the school. I just let them know if they need any help. And I also advise the parent, if you feel that something happened at the school, or they are telling you that you cannot complete the registration for X, Y or Z reason, then call me from the school, because by law we cannot hold off on any registration. These kids need to be in school as soon as possible.
Also when they arrive to the Welcome Center, immediately we qualify these families. So the day that the families receive the school placement is the same day they receive uniform assistance and the book bags with school supplies. So they are ready to start next day in school.
When it comes to the typical day or week, how many additional students are coming into the district?
We register students year-round. So sometimes in a week we receive 20 or 25. Like this week, we are receiving a lot of students. I’m pretty sure that by the end of this week we will finish with 50 or 60 new students. We don’t have an exact number because it depends. Families move around during the whole year. We have families coming from everywhere, from Brazil, from Guatemala, El Salvador. It’s not only the hurricane effect.
Do you have any perspective on how this steady transience impacts students?
In the case of the displaced families who are homeless, we try [to have] every student finish the school year in the same school, even if they have moved. We need to provide educational stability. …We are divided into four zones in Hartford. If the student was in school in Zone 1 and mom was homeless during that process and then mom finds permanent housing in Zone 4 … we let the student finish the school year in their school.
Do you face challenges enrolling these displaced students in school when they or their families are undocumented immigrants?
We don’t ask if they are legally or illegally here. So we just open the doors for every student so that parents can feel welcome and comfortable in their school. If they have a birth certificate or if they are here, legal or not – this is not our part, you know. We are here to serve them, to support them, to connect them with services.
You mentioned the district helps these students with school supplies, bus passes, uniforms and coats. Any other services?
You mentioned many of these students speak limited or no English. What does that mean for their enrollment and the education provided to them?
We have different schools that we identify as English Language Learner hubs for the students that are coming from the affected areas. The schools are Sanchez, Burns and McDonough. Those schools are in the South End.
But yesterday, we received students from San Croix, British Virgin Islands. So if they are staying with a family member who lives in the North End and they prefer their school in the north, then definitely we will place them over there. Every school offers services for students whose English is not their first language.
Is Hartford prepared to enroll these influxes of students?
We are prepared. I’m receiving donations from a lot of places. I’m collecting at the Welcome Center. Central Office staff is donating stuff – canned food, deodorant, feminine products, hygiene products. You know, I’m trying to have a little bit of everything at the office so we can give them away as soon the family comes.
I ask them, ‘You need something?’
Sometimes they don’t even have a penny in their pocket, to be honest with you.
You mentioned some of the schools have health clinics. What is the role of those clinics?
We have six schools that have clinics – in the South End and in the North End. They do the physicals, the vacinations for students, with no charge. Families don’t need to pay…if they are a Hartford Public School student.
We also connect families with — for example if the mom is illegal and needs to be seen by the doctors — we have connections with different organizations so we can help and connect the family with the services.
Is there something you wish the public would better understand when it comes to homeless and displaced students?
We don’t like to call these students and their families homeless. We call them displaced and families in transition.
This is a transition. This is not going to be forever.
Also, there are a lot of services around, but sometimes it’s a little bit hard [because of a] lack of resources for these families. For example, the first step is calling 2-1-1. You know how long it takes to call the 2-1-1? Sometimes these families have minute phones, so they run out of minutes and were not able to complete the intake for services.
What’s the most challenging part to getting families back on their feet?
The most challenging, I think, is the housing part. We receive families at my office telling us, “We don’t have a place to sleep tonight.”
OK. So we call 2-1-1 with them. And then they are asked, “Where did you stay last night? Oh, you can stay there again.”
There’s no funds for hotels. Sometimes they have funds for hotels or motels – but not all the time. So sometimes we finish collecting money in my office from each employee to help because it’s sad when it comes with students, little kids, babies. It breaks my heart.
How often is it the case where someone comes to you and says we don’t have a place to sleep tonight and there’s no room in the shelters?
It depends. This is the time of year that the shelters are full. So we try to contact the directors of shelters to check their lists, because they update the list two times in the day. We call the 2-1-1 and then we have to wait for a phone call.
So sometimes we could receive one family per week sometimes two or three per month. It depends. We try to arrange and set up these families as soon as we can.
Are families eager or hesitant to come forward for services?
Sometimes the families are afraid because they think because they are experiencing homelessness we are going to contact DCF. No. DCF doesn’t need to be involved because you are homeless. Many are afraid that because they don’t have a stable place for their kids, we are going to call DCF. We don’t work like that.
What would you say to people who think the families of these students just need to get a job, and it is not the responsibility of taxpayers to provide all these services?
It’s so sad. You know I always say that I treat these families like it was me sitting in that chair. Because today I have a job. Maybe tomorrow it will be me. I’m a single mom with three kids. I know it’s not easy being a single mom, working, and there’s a lot of bills to pay. So today I have a job, maybe tomorrow I will have no job.
I help them to create resumes and cover letters. I refer them to different agencies so they can start building themselves up. You know these parents, when they are struggling like that, they are depressed. It’s a lot on their mind. So you know we try to guide them if they need support, psychological services, we try to connect them.
Today it’s them. Maybe tomorrow it’s us. Don’t judge the book by its cover because you never know.
Some of the families were evicted. And evictions are not always for a lack of payments. There are some other reasons. For example, the owner of the house sells the house. They don’t have even enough time to vacate the house, and they were not able to find another place. Some of these families, they don’t have good credit in order to rent. Most of these places ask you for a credit score. They check your credit. And if you don’t have the credit, they ask you for two to three months of deposit. It’s hard to get two to three months of deposit for these families that are living check-by-check.
When it comes to the state and its involvement in helping homeless students. How would you say the state’s doing?
We have a budget for the homeless that is $40,000, and we need to do miracles with that $40,000. With that we pay for uniforms, bus passes, school supplies, tutors in the shelters. So it’s a limited budget.
That’s why we depend on donations. I mean we have communication with agencies that have something for these families.
What is your most memorable day in this job?
One of the parents helping me today was a mom who was displaced three years ago. I remember that day. She is a mom of three kids and she has two handicapped students. And I remember that day she arrived to our office and said, ‘I don’t have a place to stay tonight.’
And she mentioned to me the conditions of the kids. I started like crazy calling all the shelters.
‘No. We don’t have the space.’
‘No. We don’t have the space.’
‘No. We don’t have the room.’
If we didn’t find a place, they were going to stay in their car. So I insisted and begged the shelter – the Salvation Army Shelter – and so they find room for her.
And now she has her own apartment. You know, it’s little-by-little, step-by-step. This was one of the cases that touched me and impacted my life. And I always said, ‘There’s nothing impossible.’
We always check in with the families — not to be on top of them but just to support them.
‘How can I help you?” I will ask.
‘Oh, I want to apply for a job but I don’t have a computer.’
I tell them to come to my office and use our computers. And when they’re here, I ask what else can we help you with?
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.