Sheleah Harris wasn’t sure what was happening to the child.
“He started out, and everything was great,” she said. “He was active. And then through the semester I saw him spiraling down. He was falling asleep, missing homework assignments, not paying attention…”
This was three years ago, in the fall semester of 2015, when Sheleah (pronounced Shu-lee-a) was a grade-school teacher in Shelby County, at Bartlett High School.
“There had been such a bright light in him, and when I saw it start to dim I said ‘ok, what’s going?’”
Finally, she asked him why he had started sleeping in class every day. He told her that he had to work until early each morning with his dad in order for them to make ends meet.
“And where are you staying?” she asked.
With relatives, he told her. They as a family had been displaced.
“Displaced” is the gentler word social workers use when individuals or families have no place to call home due to disasters of any kind, physical or financial, which amount to life-changing circumstances.
In other words, they were homeless.
Sheleah and various city records estimate that in Memphis and Shelby County schools, as of this fall there are up to as many as 1300 students who have been similarly displaced and identified as homeless.
It was heartbreaking to Sheleah, a high school teacher in her sixth year on the job, to hopelessly witness this bright child slowly falling from grace. And it ultimately compelled her to start Living Grace, a local program that assists school-age children who are homeless.
Homelessness, according to the legal definitions, is any displacement from a permanent address where the child “lacks a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence.” Such displacement from a home can happen for numerous reasons, including natural disasters, house fires, or unsafe living conditions. It may be temporary, the result of a house or apartment being condemned, an eviction due to a parent’s inability to pay rent, or because a parent has been arrested and incarcerated. Or it may be because a family is fleeing from domestic violence.
However, the estimates quoted here of anywhere between 1200 and 1300 homeless youths, reflect only those identified.
“Some people don’t speak up,” Sheleah said. “Some parents are afraid to speak up for fear that their children will get taken away.”
Back to 2015, when she discovered her student was displaced, she started researching. The first things she discovered were the various laws that at least protect the students.
“McKinney-Vento,” she said, “is the biggest one that makes sure that students have the resources they need to get enrolled in school. It eliminates barriers and identifies how homelessness is defined.”
“A lot of people picture it as a kid with a backpack who leaves school and has nowhere to go. But if mom or dad are displaced for any reason, then they move in with grandma, move in with aunts and uncles, etc., then they are considered homeless and are protected by that act.”
The McKinney-Vento Homelessness Assistance Act, passed by Congress and signed into law by President Reagan in July of 1987, was the first significant federal legislation in response to homelessness. Reauthorized several times since 1987, it provides federal moneys for homeless shelter programs and provides a spectrum of services to homeless, including the Continuum of Care Programs: the Supportive Housing Program, the Shelter Plus Care Program, and the Single Room Occupancy Program, as well as the Emergency Shelter Grant Program. It established what is now called the Interagency Council on Homelessness, and it includes the 2015 provision called The Education for Homeless Children and Youth (EHCY) program, which further defined what homelessness is, and established the requirement that all school districts provide needed services to homeless children.
A Light Bulb Went Off
As a high school teacher, passionate about her job and her students, Sheleah felt compelled to do something.
“There are so many levels to it. The child comes in, they haven’t slept, they haven’t eaten, they don’t know where they’re going when they leave school. They’re not paying attention … So I thought, what can we do?”
Sheleah started a drawer in her desk, full of some basics and some snacks. She made sure her student knew about it, and soon she found out there were a couple of other students who needed to know about it.
“It was a bottom drawer on the left side of my desk,” she said, “and they knew if they needed something they could go into the drawer. I would have socks in there, travel-sized deodorant, snacks, chips, peanut butter crackers, whatever. I kept it discreet, it wasn’t labeled, they just knew it was there.”
Sheleah said she really wasn’t aware of how pervasive the homeless problem was until that one student.
“A light bulb went off. I realized this is much bigger than what we think it is. This is not some third-world country, this is right here in our own city. And of course I wanted to take on all of these students, and I had to narrow it down to what we can do right now, to get the right people in place, and go from there.”
There is of course MIFA – the Metropolitan Inter-Faith Association that recently celebrated its 50-year anniversary – a first line of defense in support of the homeless, which includes the Community Alliance for the Homeless, the Family Safety Center, and dozens of others. However in her research, she figured out there was a gap in services here in Memphis with regard to specific situations.
“Helping mothers with girls and boys is a challenge,” Sheleah said. “For example, let’s say a boy is 14-15 years old. They won’t let him in if we’re talking about a mom, two girls and then the boy. And then it’s ‘What am I going to do with my son?’ There are very few shelters here who take the whole family. I would say less than five.”
And for those parents who never disclose their situation for fear of having their children taken away, there exists an entire other subset of homeless families that are never reported, another set of kids trying to get through school without any support system, or who perhaps aren’t attending school at all.
Creating A New Support System
Before she knew it, Sheleah was filing a 501(c)(3) as a nonprofit.
“I got it approved within 30 days. I put together a board and that spring (of 2016) we started reaching out to the schools that had the highest population of homelessness and went there. We started working with the counselors of the schools – we don’t work directly with the students or their parents – and the school administrators to identify those students. Every child who registers has to put down their residence. And those who don’t or can’t are quickly identified – that’s our red flag to act.”
That summer Living Grace did donation drives for basic supplies. They put out an Ad and passed out flyers. But nothing happened.
“We did not get a pencil! The school year started and still we had nothing. Then two weeks into the semester the flood gates opened. They came out of nowhere; we got emails and offers and ‘we’ve got school supplies – come get ‘em.’”
Needless to say, since then Living Grace hasn’t had a problem with donations or supplies with each new semester.
Partners and Services
Living Grace partners with other organizations for toiletries and school supplies, and with MATA – some charter schools don’t have access to school bussing.
“That is a huge issue,” said Sheleah. “For some, it’s a decision between do I pay for this bus pass or do I eat today – that shouldn’t be a choice.”
The organization has a referral for health services; and they handle grooming services. They also have a set of volunteers who offer psychological counseling. Being very hands-on, Sheleah handles one on one counseling for high school kids, for their college readiness – those who don’t have a residence for their college applications.
Their program handles grades K thru 12, which has been their main focus for the last three years. But recently they expanded their services to assist 18 to 24 year-olds. “Young adults,” said Sheleah. “Kids who were in foster care who turn 18… where do they go?”
They now partner with Southwest Tennessee Community College as advocates for their students on campus who are also on their own. There they provide assistance with jobs, housing, and even budgeting – financial stewardship to help young adults understand what to do with their paychecks.
Overall they have seven K-12 schools involved so far, made up of traditional public schools and some charter schools.
“We started in Frayser. Moved to South Memphis. Now we are expanding to Binghampton and Orange Mound. We’re trying to cover all areas of Memphis by being strategic about it – there’s not a huge need in Germantown and Collierville – and we’re covering the heavier hit areas first.”
From an office in the Crosstown Concourse, they handle a school downtown, two in South Memphis, a few in Frayser, and the Aspire Hanley school in Orange Mound and the Kirby middle and high schools.
Within their five to ten-year plan they want to have a physical location where they can house families all together.
“But until we get there,” Sheleah said, “we’re doing what we can do, making sure the students have school supplies, toiletries, transportation, health care, grooming, etc., all those basic necessities that we take for granted ever day.”
These needs can sometimes be immediate. And in some cases the organization has gone so far as to pay for a night in a hotel for families displaced in the middle of the night.
And what ever happened to her student in Bartlett?
“Unfortunately I haven’t heard anything from him since.”
Nonetheless, Sheleah remains very hands-on in her commitment to helping in any way possible. She has even been known to give out her personal phone number to those in need.
She once took a phone call at night from a 19-year-old girl who had nowhere to go and who was walking the streets with a backpack, unable to find a shelter to take her in on short notice because of her age. Sheleah picked her up and let her sleep on her couch for the night.
“I want to bring awareness to this as a whole,” she said. “It’s right here in our own city. Homelessness doesn’t have a specific look. It doesn’t always have a face. It can hit anybody: black students, white students, Hispanic students, girls, boys, all ages.”