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Project REACH: easing the effects of homelessness on St. Paul students

The St. Paul school district serves nearly 700 homeless students. The numbers in the Minneapolis Public School district look much larger — nearly 2,000 homeless students.

On Dec. 1, Bry'Shawn Dailey, Lakisha Dailey and La'Davi-a Allcorn transitioned from being homeless to living in a rental unit in the Frogtown neighborhood of St. Paul.
MinnPost photo by Erin Hinrichs

For the first time in nearly three years, Lakisha Dailey, 40, and her two children will be heading into the holiday season without wondering where they’ll be sleeping. On Dec. 1, they transitioned from being homeless to living in a rental unit in the Frogtown neighborhood of St. Paul that they can call their own.

The first few weeks, furnishings were sparse — with a cooler doubling as a place to sit and some totes containing their personal belongings doubling as tabletops. But Dailey purchased a few air mattresses, scrounged up a free TV — though she says she can’t yet afford to replace the missing antenna or pay for cable — and refurbished an abandoned couch by sticking some phone books under the broken leg. Giving unsuspecting guests a heads up, before they plop down on it, is the sort of thing that gives her a good laugh.

Their gray and white cat, Smokey, meanders from one room to the next. In the living room, a donated Christmas tree sits in its cardboard box, waiting to be assembled. The other day, Dailey says she had intended to get decorations to put on it. But it fell by the wayside after sorting through “loose bills and everything else that had to be taken care of,” she said.

Her kids — a senior at Gordon Parks High School and a 10th-grader at Harding Senior High School — haven’t celebrated a birthday, a Christmas, or any other holiday for years, she said. And gifts have been out of reach, with any discretionary income going  toward purchasing things out of necessity like food and soap. But even La’Davi-a Allcorn — the 17-year-old girl with a job outside of school who prioritizes helping pay the phone bill or picking up dinner over treating herself to a day at the mall with her friends — is taking time off this winter break to simply spend time with family in their new home.

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“With us being in our own place, I just pray that they’re able to get back to their normal because my kids are good kids, normally honor roll students,” Dailey said. “But they go through it, they’ve been through it. I’m just praying we’re able to get back to our normal.”

Some aspects of this journey will be made easier by the folks at Project REACH — a  St. Paul Public Schools program that supports homeless families living in shelters and street-based settings with a number of resources, ranging from coordinated transportation services  and assistance with school supplies to connecting students with volunteer tutors and referring families to other community resources.

Anne McInerney, the program’s supervisor, says during this time of year, her team is also involved in coordinating things like drives to collect winter coats and blankets, food and toys. These are the sorts of things that help take the edge off of the anxiety many homeless students face when heading into school breaks — and away from the certainty of school meals.

‘A severe lack of affordable housing’

According to student enrollment data reported by the Minnesota Department of Education, the St. Paul school district serves nearly 700 homeless students. The numbers in the Minneapolis Public School district look much larger — nearly 2,000 homeless students, as reported by the state. But McInerney explains that these counts aren’t completely reliable because they only reflect the enrollment count as of Oct. 1, meaning those are just the students district staff were able to identify as being homeless over the summer months and into early fall. By year’s end, McInerney predicts the St. Paul’s cumulative count will be closer to 2,000 homeless youth.

The other likely contributing factor to this discrepancy between the two Twin Cities districts may very well come down to the fact that Minneapolis has more emergency family shelters, so that’s where more families end up sending their kids to school.

There are only 105 emergency shelter beds in Ramsey County, McInerney said. In contrast, there are 500 beds at Mary’s Place alone. Last she looked, there were about 89 families on the Ramsey County emergency shelter waitlist. Unable to access a bed at a shelter, about 65 percent of the families she’s working with are currently doubled up with friends and other relatives, McInerney said.

Under the McKinney-Vento Act, a law requiring every school district in the country to work to identify homeless children and provide a number of services aimed at keeping them in school, “homeless” is defined more broadly than some may realize. It’s youth who lack “a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence,” said Beth O’Keefe, a licensed social worker with Project REACH. That includes kids in a number of living situations: those doubled up in homes with others because they lack their own housing, those living in hotels or motels because there’s no affordable housing available, those camping or living out of a vehicle, and those literally living on the streets — escaping the elements by riding public transportation all night long, or sitting in a hospital waiting room or hallway.

These are the kids districts have the most difficulty identifying for services, O’Keefe explained. In part, that’s because there’s still a misperception that being homeless is cause enough to separate kids from their caregivers. So unless a family discloses their status during placement or seeks out services on their own — or a teacher or some other adult refers a family — they could move through the school system keeping their living situation private.

O’Keefe says that the “severe lack of affordable housing” in St. Paul right now is impacting more and more families with school-aged children. Counting a stack of cases she’s already verified as families living in an unsheltered situation, she got to 30 before noting that the count doesn’t include any in her colleague’s caseload. That’s more in just this year than she’s ever done in her six years of working with the program, she said.

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“I think there’s a misperception out there that people don’t work. Most of my families are working,” she said. “It’s just that they’re working on the lower income level. I do get families all the time, especially now, who actually have adequate income, but have other barriers — they’ve got a bad credit score, they’ve got an eviction on their record, they’ve got some other hiccup that’s just preventing them from getting housing.”

The other trend she’s been noticing is that many of the Section 8 voucher holders she works with cannot find a landlord to work with them.

In Dailey’s case, she’s been working as a personal care assistant for the past two years, helping the elderly, the disabled or anyone else in need of assistance with daily tasks or household chores. But low wages — combined with health issues and a bad case of identity theft that tanked her credit score, among other things — drove her family into a bout of homelessness that ended up lasting nearly three years.

At first, they bounced from couch to couch, staying with extended family members and friends until they’d exhausted their options. For a while, they lived  in a motel in Roseville, she said. But that wasn’t a sustainable living situation, especially when prices rose whenever there was a demand for places to stay, during the State Fair, the holiday and other events. For a period of time, they even tried living out of out of their vehicle — tidying up in a public restroom before dropping her son off at school, and her daughter at a friend’s house to eat breakfast and finish getting ready for her schoolday, which started a bit later. 

Despite tough times, Dailey isn’t one to wallow. She may have dropped out of school at age 16 to work while her mother was home sick, she said. But she went on to college in Texas to study early childhood development. And she ran her own day care for a while, while raising her two kids and taking care of her mother. They all ended up in Minnesota to care for her father, after her mother died.

“I can’t really pinpoint one thing that caused the struggle,” she said.

Through it all, however, she managed to make sure her kids were enrolled in school. And she watches their progress reports like a hawk — even when that means going into the school office to request a hard copy of their transcripts and following up with teachers.  

“When you sit back and look — yeah it was a struggle, for my kids more so than anything. They’re dealing with being a teenager, on top of being homeless,” she said. “But if you keep that faith of a mustard seed, things happen.”

Carrying an invisible burden at school

Dailey says her kids’ experience with homelessness impacted them in different ways. For her daughter, La’Davi-a, it forced her to grow up more quickly than her peers. For her 15-year-old son, Bry’Shawn, it made him a bit more withdrawn from school.

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“I don’t want to say they lost hope — but, as a parent, they lost that sparkle,” she said, adding they all cover it well with a quirky sense of humor and a “glass half full” perspective that they’re committed to maintaining in the face of adversity.

Reflecting on the past few years, Bry’Shawn says that at the start of his ninth-grade year, his lowest grade was a C. But as they continued moving around, his grades began to suffer. While at school, his mind would be preoccupied with thoughts of where he was going to sleep that night, he said. And after school, his options for an outlet were limited.

“I don’t open up to too many people,” he said. “If it’s happening, it’s happening. I don’t like asking for help, skipping or missing days of school,” he said, adding he kept the stress of his living situation private.

At the same time, he was keenly aware of the new clothes his peers were sporting at the start of the school year, while he sought to maximize his access to the locker room facilities during football season by showering and washing his clothes out with soap.

His experience with school shouldn’t come as a surprise to educators, who have long known of the impacts of childhood trauma, whether caused by  homelessness, chronic poverty, or other circumstances.

“The parents are going through a lot of trauma and the kids are too,” O’Keefe said, adding, “That’s really impacting the kids’ ability to learn, because their learning brains aren’t going to be activated when they’re in their survival brain — and kids are living in their survival brain.”

La’Davi-a says she’s fortunate to have such a solid support network at her school, where she’s built up a résumé that she’s proud of and recently secured a paid internship serving as a mentor for other young girls. She’s incredibly pragmatic — not one to broadcast her living situation to others, but not shy in talking about her experiences with homelessness. A self-proclaimed social butterfly at school, she said her friends and school counselor would check in with her whenever she’d get quiet — a sure sign she was likely working though some uncertainties outside of school.

“I think the hardest thing for me, it’s not that we were actually homeless. It’s that I’m older and I see things differently than everyone else,” she said. “I had to grow up faster than what I was supposed to, I guess.”

Her high school experience hit a rocky start when they first moved back to Minnesota and a number of her school credits failed to transfer, she said. But she managed to get caught up by doing school year-round — by taking extra classes at night, during the summer, and online while experiencing homelessness — for nearly a year and a half. She’s now on track to graduate in 2018, and plans to attend  a local community college for cosmetology, then go on to pursue a veterinary degree.

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“I think five, 10 years ahead of time,” she said. “I want doctorate degree — the highest possible education I possibly can.”