As a homeless student at Sound School, Michaelle Gonzalez often crashed at her friends’ houses, but she sometimes had to sleep outside, right behind the school. She missed a lot of days and was reprimanded when she did show up. She eventually dropped out.
Gonzalez recounted her personal experience in testimony at a Board of Alders Education Committee hearing Wednesday night at City Hall held to discuss the plight of homeless students. Gonzalez suggested that officials stop focusing on their databases and instead listen to what teens experiencing homelessness need from their schools.
“I just wanted to humanize all of these numbers and slides,” she said. “We are real people. It’s not that we don’t want to attend school or that we are deciding to do this.”
At 15 years old, Gonzalez came out as LGBT to her high school friends. When her parents found out about her sexuality, they threw her out of the house.
She said she was in a “really uncomfortable position.” She wanted to continue her schooling, but she also wanted to avoid child-protective services, which she worried wouldn’t be a “safe option” for her.
Gonzalez couch-surfed with friends for most of her sophomore year. She slept under a picnic table outside the school for most of her junior year.
“My attendance dropped immensely” until she stopped going altogether in late winter, she recounted.
As many as 820 students across New Haven’s public schools experienced homelessness in the past three years. District officials calculated that 44 percent of them are chronically absent, meaning they’ve missed one-tenth of the school year.
Gemma Joseph Lumpkin, the district’s director of family and community engagement, said that many of these students don’t show up because they can’t arrange transportation from their temporary housing or don’t have backpacks or uniforms.
Gonzalez said she dropped out because she needed to focus on survival.
“The reason why I didn’t attend school wasn’t transportation or doubling up with other families, like what I heard from the data [school officials presented]. The reason why I didn’t go to school is because it didn’t feel like a priority to me at the time. My priority was to find something to eat. At this point I was working two jobs so I would avoid school altogether to keep my employment so that I could afford to maybe have a bed to stay in for a weekend.”
“When I was present, I was embarrassed by my peers,” she continued. “I would wear the same thing all the time. I was embarrassed by my lack of hygiene. I couldn’t present myself the way I wanted to.”
Gonzalez added that when she did return to class, she felt like she was being punished for missing so many days. She said the faculty seemed more focused on the lessons she needed to make up than the reason why she hadn’t been there in the first place.
“My attendance was brought up as something that would become disciplinary, when I did show up,” she went on. “I felt like the teachers either didn’t notice or they made it a point to tell me they needed to see me after class, that my grades aren’t going to be able to come up, which prompted me to stop going altogether.”
How Schools Can Help
To boost attendance, Gonzalez suggested, schools might provide more of the basic services that homeless students need so that they can focus on their studies.
“School didn’t feel like a priority because I felt like it couldn’t provide anything for me. My priorities were on my basic necessities, not where my education was going to take me,” she said. “If there were something that could have been provided by the school, where I could either take a shower or gotten an extra meal or washed my clothes, it would have made me feel safer and more inclined to keep attending.”
A way to wash and dry clothes, in particular, is “a basic necessity” that’s often “really inaccessible” for people who don’t have stable housing, Gonzalez added.
Schools in Newark, Oakland and Detroit built laundry rooms with support from donors, at costs ranging from $13,000 to $20,000. And schools in Los Angeles, New Orleans, Atlanta and Chicago received washers and dryers for free from Whirlpool, after a principal in St. Louis reached out to the company with the idea.
Across the board, principals in those schools reported that chronically absent students were back in their desks more often and seemed more motivated, once the machines were installed.
Sam Greenberg, the founder of a youth homeless shelter in Harvard Square who’s now trying to bring the model to New Haven, said that a lower-cost option might be stocking shelves with donated clothes and toiletries, as the nonprofit Catie’s Closet does for schools across Massachusetts and New Hampshire.
Gonzalez also said that teachers and students need more training on how to respond when they learn that someone in their class doesn’t have stable housing.
In her case, Gonzalez wasn’t listed as homeless until after she dropped out. Sound School, like all others in the state, had appointed a federally mandated liaison for homeless students; Gonzalez said she hadn’t known that the building had one at the time.
“I was experiencing severe housing instability for two years, and it wasn’t until very shortly before I dropped out that it was even brought up that I’m not attending for a reason, that it shouldn’t be a disciplinary action. I just felt that took too long,” she said.
“I wish my peers had more support as well,” she continued. “My closest friends found out much sooner than any adult that I knew, and they didn’t speak out either, even to their own families. I was afraid of [the Department of Children and Families], and I told them so. Being also 15 years old, they didn’t know any better. Even if somebody’s asking you to keep a secret, it’s not something that you should, because it would have benefited me in the long run.”
As soon as she finished speaking, Gonzalez had to dash out to make it back to Youth Continuum’s transitional-living facility on Winthrop Avenue for the night.
Gemma Joseph Lumpkin said she’d been “moved” by the story.
She said she’ll look into applying for federal grant money to purchase washers and dryers, perhaps through a Community Development Block Grant, as Upper Westville Alder Darryl Brackeen, Jr., suggested. And she said she’ll figure out how to better publicize the homeless liaisons within each school created under the federal McKinney Vento Act, perhaps with posters in English and Spanish, as Fair HavenAlder Kenneth Reveiz suggested.
The committee members also voted unanimously to draft a letter to the state asking for increased McKinney-Vento funding to pay for the district’s programs for homeless students.
Last year, the district used those funds to pay a contractor $1,400 a week to oversee its programs for foster and homeless youth. Former Upper Westville Alder Sergio Rodriguez, got the “no-bid” contract last winter; it was renewed this summer.
In his first three months on the job, Rodriguez spent much of his time connecting with administrators and officials, updating the student intake form, and attending events like the new superintendent’s community forums.