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Considering Kids Who Are Homeless

About 10 years ago, my then-four-year-old daughter voiced an unusual bedtime prayer. With the kind of sincerity heard only in a young child, she asked God to “let the poor have everything we have.”

This prayer caught me off guard. To be sure, I was teaching my child to care about those less fortunate. I wanted her to grow up with an attitude of gratitude and a spirit and practice of generosity. But where did she get the idea that the poor should have everything we have? I had never taught her that!

Such an outrageous idea is fraught with all sorts of problems. The poor probably haven’t worked as hard as we have, or walked as narrow a path, or invested equal time and money in education. As for the grown-up poor, we can talk about their bad choices and addictions, about laziness and taking advantage of the system, and about all sorts of equally damning reasons folks are in predicaments.

Yes, everyone should have life’s necessities and enjoy a certain standard of living. But that doesn’t mean having “everything we have.” Besides, don’t “we” really doubt that “they” could be trusted to use middle-class resources wisely?

But when it comes to children of poverty, doesn’t it just seem like dumb luck what kind of a family one is born to? Who could blame a kid for being poor? Who could blame a kid for being homeless?

The government mandates that poor children receive the same education as others. Homeless children must be enrolled, with no barriers, by the school in the area in which they are staying—whether in a shelter, on a couch, in a vehicle—or the school in the area where they formerly resided. Homeless children may not be segregated for educational purposes solely on the basis of their homelessness.

Overall, such federal legislation is a good thing, for separate is never equal. However, some exceptional facilities have served homeless children in separate settings for years, likely going back to when other public schools rejected them.

The education provided children in these centers has not been substandard at all—especially considering that most such centers are in urban areas where the average public school is probably inferior in many respects. Furthermore, the treatment has not been discriminatory.

On the contrary, these temporary, transitional centers have been accepting, affirming places where kids can be assessed in academic, psychological and medical areas. Children then receive help in enrolling, attending and succeeding in a school near their new residence.

But the government—in its enthusiasm to “leave no child behind”—has jeopardized such centers (except for those located in four counties excluded from some of the law’s requirements) by re-authorizing part of the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act.

Most of us would agree that homeless children should have everything—in terms of a public education—that “homed” children have. But they should have more. How can children facing so many challenges come out even if they aren’t compensated for their severe deficits? They need more just to have a fighting chance at success in our competitive society.

Our communities must help homeless or impoverished children to get on a stable educational track—and stay there. Few investments are as important to the future of individuals, families, communities and our nation.
Unless we want to see history repeated in the next generation, the children of the poor should have everything we have—and then some.

Karen Johnson Zurheide is executive director of Positive Tomorrows in Oklahoma City, a center providing support services for children and youth facing family life challenges.

Order Zurheide’s books from Amazon!
In Their Own Way: Accepting Your Children for Who They Are
Learning with Molly