Students Experiencing Homelessness

“Virtual learning is tough for our kids,” said Ms. Martisha Smith, District 189 Academic Interventionist. In her field, students are usually characterized in three tiers – tier one represents the whole class environment. Tier two consists of children that benefit from a bit of small group help to be successful in the classroom. Tier three is for students needing more frequent, intensive intervention to be successful in school. “In District 189 the tiers are flipped, we have a lot of students who need tier three support due to traumas and other deficiencies,” said Ms. Smith. Virtual learning and other issues magnified by the pandemic have increased the struggles faced by Smith’s students.

Trained both as a social worker and an educator, Ms. Smith knows that mindsets and behaviors are changed based on environments for children and adults alike. “It was hard for me when I began working virtually,” said Martisha. “I had to set up a home office and keep myself in a similar mindset to what I would have at school.” With parents working during school hours, older siblings are often responsible for their schoolwork and for making sure their younger siblings are logging on and paying attention. Smith believes parents give their best selves but struggle to help their children with everything else going on in their lives right now. “Kids are having to become mini adults,” said Smith. “A lot of our kids don’t have internet connectivity at home and if they do it can be inconsistent.”

Sixth grader, “Devon” (name changed to protect privacy) was logging in for virtual school every day. Ms. Smith got to know him through the small groups sessions she manages. She would also see Devon through the virtual social-emotional support offered through the district. Children needing someone to talk to have the ability to click a link to make a quick connection during their school day.

One day Devon stopped logging in. Ms. Smith was concerned. With the challenges faced by her students she knew there could be many reasons that he disappeared from the virtual environment. Ms. Smith would later find out Devon and his family were experiencing homelessness at Catholic Urban Programs’ Holy Angels Shelter. “He didn’t want to tell me what was going on at first,” said Smith. “Kids will work hard to keep that from people. There is no relaxation in homelessness, no getting comfortable. It is like you are always in public because you are living with others.”

Homelessness is a struggle Smith knows first-hand. As a child she remembers moving from house-to-house doubling-up with family and friends. “I see myself in kids who struggle,” said Smith. “That’s why I chose to be an educator here. I was a District 189 student who needed extra support.”

Smith knew she needed to lay eyes on Devon. She has been to the shelter several times including on the weekends. “If I can connect with my students and help address some of the root causes of their problems, I will do that,” said Smith. Using her own funds to help her students is something she does frequently. She has purchased clothing, shoes, and a suitcase for Devon. “I was able to go to the shelter and teach Devon how to wash his own clothes,” said Smith. “While I was there, I met his little sister. After I left, I kept thinking about what I could do to make her feel special and loved.”

On Smith’s next trip to the shelter, she gave the little girl a new hairstyle. “My daughter is in her 20’s,” said Smith. “It had been a while but the staff and clients at the shelter gave me advice, we had fun and Devon’s little sister definitely felt pampered.”

Smith’s outreach goes beyond this one family. “If I find out my students are hungry, or cold I will do what I can to help.” Ms. Smith has spent this school year working to be the consistency she believes her students need, especially in times like these. “I want my students to know that I don’t have to be their mom to love them, said Smith. “My ultimate goal is to do what I can to help develop good citizens.”

Here at Catholic Urban Programs, we are grateful for Ms. Smith and all who are committed to rekindling hope and remediating the effects of poverty.

Note: client’s name changed to protect privacy.