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May 1, 1994
Vol. 51
No. 8

A Safety Net for Homeless Students

A communitywide effort in Central Florida is proving that when everyone lends a hand, homelessness doesn't have to mean hopelessness.
Instructional Strategies
Orlando, Florida, like so many other metropolitan areas, is facing the impact of homelessness with increasing frequency. In fact, the number of homeless people in Florida has been increasing 20–25 percent per year, and current economic indicators foretell a further jump.
An exact number is difficult to pinpoint, but on any given night 1,700 persons are estimated to be homeless in Orange County. Of that number, approximately 40 percent are families. In 1988, the District VII Coalition on the Hungry and the Homeless of Orange County, comprised of 34 agencies, began meeting regularly to address this challenge.
Although Orange County, the 17th largest district in the nation, is a leader in helping homeless children, the crisis is becoming more daunting every day. The district works closely with each of the seven family shelters to support their efforts to return homeless families to self-sufficiency, but the shelter capacity meets only about 40 percent of the need. As a result, many more children and youth in our schools are living in cars, in the woods, in motels, or other temporary living conditions—either because they choose not to enter a shelter or because of lack of space.

A Communitywide Network

  • Even Start and First Start educators work with families at the shelters, in addition to the many pre- and post-homeless families they serve.
  • Chapter I funds tutors at several shelters and serves families living in shelters through the In-Home Computer Math Program and the Parental Involvement Reading Program.
  • Through Orange County's Citizens Commission on Children, many homeless children receive scholarships for before- and after-school programs.
One unique aspect of Orange County's plan is the designation of a volunteer advocate, or advocacy team, in each of the district's 122 schools. Some of their duties include sharing information about homelessness with the faculty and staff, assisting homeless families with registration, and working with each student and his or her family to access available services and resources. Working closely with the City of Orlando, a community group is developing a computer network of services and resources. The first phase, linking the seven family shelters, was completed in March.

Students as Volunteers

The University of Central Florida's involvement in this effort is centered on the activities of undergraduate education students enrolled in Teaching Strategies and Classroom Learning Principles. As part of their requirements, students in these two courses must do volunteer work in a school or community organization, including centers for the homeless.
In a project called the Student Literacy Corps, begun in 1992, students volunteer 60 hours a semester as tutors at homeless shelters. Funded by the U.S. Department of Education, the program provides not only academic help and encouragement for the tutees (both children and adults), but also gives future teachers service opportunities that will enrich their professional and personal development.
According to Patricia Moody, director of the Orlando Union Rescue Mission, the students who reside there eagerly look forward to the tutoring sessions, which take place in study areas set up at the Mission. The university tutors and the teachers from Rock Lake Elementary School communicate regularly about the children's progress by telephone and by sharing progress folders on the students every Wednesday. The teachers report that students show a marked improvement in school performance.
This spring, the Student Mentoring Corps will be launched. Through this sister project, also funded by the Department of Education, university students will take homeless students on field trips designed to broaden their horizons in science, mathematics, and technology. Some of the places they will visit are the Kennedy Space Center, the butterfly exhibit at the Tampa Science Center, and experimental agricultural stations at the Disney World Pavilion.

The Consequences of Caring

The Central Florida Coalition is looking ahead to continued success and cooperative work. In addition to its current focus, the group is tackling affordable housing, transportation, and pressing issues like child care. Together, the school district, shelters, and community organizations are striving to provide the resources to eliminate these concerns.
The success of these collaborative efforts thus far is evident from talking with the people involved. The school advocates, community representatives, and college students say they relish the opportunity to help others and value the benefits that service offers them. Most of all, the homeless students realize that many people care about them and want them to succeed in school and in life.
Those who have stepped forward to help their less fortunate neighbors realize that homelessness is just one letter away from hopelessness. Orlando Mayor Glenda Hood said it best when she called the networking of community agencies a safety net for families in crisis. Her challenge to the community is to not only expand this safety net, but to turn it on end to form a ladder out of the hopelessness and despair of homelessness.

Reasons for Success in Orange County-table

  1. Awareness among the area's leadership regarding the scope of the homeless problem.

  2. A common vision.

  3. A standard of putting concerns into action.

  4. Involvement of persistent key people who have contacts in the community.

  5. Willingness on everyone's part to share the glory and good news, as well as the responsibility for correcting weaknesses in the program.

  6. A “can do” attitude on the part of everyone involved.

 


End Notes

1 Lending support to the Coalition's efforts are the Orange County government, the City of Orlando, Orange County's Citizens Commission on Children, Tri-County Transit, the University of Central Florida, Orange County Public Schools, and local churches, organizations, and individual volunteers. Funding comes from private donations, foundation grants, federal grants, city general revenue funds, and county general revenue funds.

George E. Pawlas has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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