Homelessness is not an abstract policy issue or something that only happens someplace else. Last year at Des Moines Public Schools, more than a thousand students faced homelessness at some point, enough to fill a high school.
This past Valentine’s Day, as classrooms all over the school district threw “Friendship Parties,” a couple of them at Hubbell Elementary School added an additional layer that was a sweet gesture toward this serious problem.
Stacie Nessa is a DMPS social worker whose job is to advocate for youth facing a variety of dire circumstances, including homelessness. She also has two kids of her own. Sunny is a kindergartner at Hubbell and Dodger is a 2nd grader there. Nessa helps out in their classrooms on special occasions, like Valentine’s Day. When she threw a birthday party for Dodger last November, they decided to suggest that his guests make donations to the Iowa Homeless Youth Centers. The proceeds were used to purchase personal hygiene items like toothpaste, chap-sticks, Kleenex and deodorant and put together Friendship Bags when Sunny’s and Dodger’s classes held their Friendship Parties in February. So last Friday, besides swapping cards and candies with each other, Sunny and Dodger and their classmates bagged bare necessities for delivery to teens who are transitioning from homelessness with the help of people like Nessa and the staff at IHYC.
The line between Nessa’s job and her personal life is blurry.
Four days later at Hoover High School, she introduced us to Tony (not his real name), whose life is an ongoing emergency. He had agreed to talk with us but got cold feet. So Nessa spoke for him. She’s used to doing that.
“These kids have system support until they turn 18,” she said. “After that, if they choose to be engaged in aftercare services they can meet with a professional advocate twice a month. Do you remember what you or your healthy well-developed children needed at 18? Was it more than twice a month?”
Everyone’s seen movies where the only thing keeping someone from falling off a cliff or a ledge is someone else’s outstretched hand. But the would-be savior isn’t quite strong enough. Eventually, gravity has its way. Nessa and her colleagues are the outstretched hands. They keep kids from falling as long as they can, but the weight of circumstances can be too much to overcome without more help.
Tony’s a case in point.
He’s been in 12 facilities since 6th grade, from the state training school at Eldora to the Bethel Mission. At 18, he’s aging out of the foster care system, but into what? When he re-enrolled last fall at Hoover, Special Education Consultant Sarah Paul recognized Tony.
“I remembered him as a 5th grader in the FOCUS program,” she said. “By then his parents had lost their parental rights and he was already in the system. He was an angry boy and you couldn’t blame him.”
By then, she might as well have said, the only chance he had was whatever the school district could do for him.
Tony comes to school now because it’s a sanctuary from an otherwise ferocious existence. But he’s far short of the credits necessary to graduate. Recently, Nessa negotiated an apartment for him to live in by himself. She cajoles landlords and cobbles safety nets together like some knit hats, scarves and mittens. It’s a roof over his head, but hardly a home. Tony is hanging on but the gravity of his circumstances is relentless. In the state’s largest school district, there are many variations of this scenario.
In the 2018-19 school year, 1,125 DMPS students were identified as experiencing homelessness, according to Jill Padgett, the DMPS Community Schools Coordinator. That’s enough to fill a high school the size of Hoover. Imagine a high school where routine, daily homecoming is wishful thinking for every student.
Nessa lives by the credo that every kid is one caring adult away from becoming a success story.
“It’s clear to me it only takes one adult to stay connected to these kids to make a huge difference,” she said.
It makes you wonder: What’s the adult public policy equivalent of kindergartners and 2nd graders collecting a carload of “Friendship Bags” for homeless youth, and what might it accomplish?