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Story Publication logo May 18, 2020

She's Racing to Help Homeless Kids — But Can't Reach Them During Pandemic

Empty desks and blackboard in a classroom. Image by maroke / Japan, undated.

In 2016, the number of unaccompanied homeless youth reached 100,000 for the first time ever, and...

Margaret Lee, board secretary of the superintendent for Covenant House Academy, keeps proper distance in the administrative offices on 25th Street in Detroit. Image by Kelly Jordan / Detroit Free Press. United States, 2020.
Margaret Lee, board secretary of the superintendent for Covenant House Academy, keeps proper distance in the administrative offices on 25th Street in Detroit. Image by Kelly Jordan / Detroit Free Press. United States, 2020.

Margaret Lee logged into a Zoom call and steeled herself to problem-solve in a pandemic. If anyone in metro Detroit could face up to this crisis, it was her. But even for someone who had seen it all, this was overwhelming.

“Margaret,” the school principal said softly over the audio, “you’re crying.”

“Miss West,” she replied, looking into the computer. “Yes, I am.”

Lee is a warrior for children who often have no way to fight for themselves. She is a board secretary at Covenant House Academy, a tuition-free, alternative charter school where 96% of students qualify for free or reduced lunch, a third have experienced homelessness, and more than a tenth have been in foster care. “If there is such a word as the most ‘at-risk-est,’ that’s the kind of kid that comes to Covenant,” said superintendent Terrence George.

For years, Lee was a homelessness liaison. Her passion and her strength were in supporting the wanderers and the lost. Now she and her colleagues face an unprecedented environment where a lethal coronavirus suddenly seems to be everywhere in the city and homeless students could be anywhere. Many of Lee’s tested methods of helping those kids no longer work. They can’t come to her, and she can’t get to them.

“It’s taken its toll on me,” Lee said over the phone as COVID-19 spread through southeast Michigan in early April. “I don’t know where to go or where to begin. I just don’t know.”

Homelessness among the nation’s youth — which is federally defined as lacking “a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence” — was a rapidly growing problem even during a strong economy.

In Michigan, the homelessness problem has been especially pernicious. As recently as the school year 2015-16, the state ranked sixth nationally in students experiencing homelessness, according to the University of Michigan. 

Now, near the end of the academic calendar for 2019-20, schools are shuttered, unemployment is rampant, a pandemic is ravaging Detroit, and advocates like Lee live in a state of constant worry. How do kids “stay at home” when there’s no home where they can safely stay?

“I’m going through the phone numbers, but they don’t work,” Lee said. “Sometimes they’ll reach out to me. But I haven’t heard from any of them.”

The race to find and help homeless children goes on every single day, all over Detroit and all over the country. It’s devastating and inspiring, maddening and heartening. Over the past several weeks there have been flourishes of ingenuity by advocates who care, and there have been setbacks that left hopeful trails cold.

“If you don’t have a stable place to live, you don’t have control over who you’re interacting with,” said Jen Erb-Downward, a poverty researcher at the University of Michigan. “This puts families at much greater risk of getting sick. What do you do if you’re a homeless mother and you have to go to the hospital? What do you do with your children?”

While elected officials and the media focus on safely getting back to normal, there’s a segment of the Michigan population for whom “normal” is nowhere near safe enough.

I. Fear

Margaret Lee was between jobs when she came to the Mexicantown branch of Covenant House Academy. She started there as a security guard.

“I had no idea the homelessness youth problem is so prevalent,” she said. “Oh my goodness, kids were coming in with body odor, filthy clothes. Some would live with their abuser. One girl would eat and sleep all day in school. She would not even go to the bathroom (at home) because the uncle was taking advantage of her.

“I thought, yes, this is where I need to be, and this is my calling.”

Lee made care packages part of her calling. “That’s my hustle,” she said. The end-of-year care package was filled with socks, underwear, toilet paper, crackers, canned Vienna sausage. Maybe she’d add a McDonald’s gift card. “This is your meal,” she’d joke with students, “so don’t go selling this!”

This semester, there were no year-end care packages.

It wasn’t just an abrupt loss of the steadiness of school. In a city where 13% of residents had experienced housing instability even before the coronavirus outbreak, a lot of the places where transient families usually stay are no longer viable. Some landlords are no longer leasing. Some hotels have closed. Others remain open but now welcome hospital workers on the front lines of the battle against the virus. In either case, it’s a form of shelter that’s hardly safe. And minors who sleep in lobbies or cars can’t exactly partake in daily life — let alone distance learning — without severe challenges.

“It’s more hectic, more intense,” says Kell Myrick, a social advocate with the Coalition on Temporary Shelter in Detroit. “Parents are with their kids 24/7 and can’t really go anywhere.”

At the Detroit Phoenix Center for at-risk and homeless youth, founder Courtney Smith has distributed 350 care packages in the last month even though her office is closed. She tells a story of one Wayne State student who used to rely on the warmth of area casinos overnight and now rides transit instead. Afraid for his health in such an exposed environment, he made sure to wear a bandanna over his face because he couldn’t find a mask. Then he was held up at gunpoint when a stranger mistook him for a gang member.

“I used to be an unaccompanied minor,” Smith said, “and I don’t know how I would have survived in the age of COVID.”

Whenever Lee got a worrisome text about a student during a school break in years past, she would run out to look for the child — at a shelter, or a bus station, or throughout the neighborhood where they may have been spotted.

“It’s not like you can bring a student to your house,” Lee said. “If I find a student out here, where can I take him?”

This is the essence of the problem: limited resources for children who already have limited resources. The McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act insists that “homelessness is not sufficient reason to separate students from the mainstream school environment,” but the coronavirus wrecked the "mainstream school environment," and built instead a new maze of complications.

Educators want to make sure students have laptops, but how will homeless students find places with Wi-Fi or even outlets to charge? Educators want to give out meals at schools, but kids without reliable transportation might have to take the bus, which could expose them to illness. Educators might want to look for students in shelters or parks, but shelters are no longer as safe, and parks are closed. Personal hygiene is crucial, but what about families who can’t get into a laundromat to wash clothing?

“If you’re couch surfing, you can’t social distance, you can’t know what you’re carrying, and you may not have a place with running water to wash your hands,” Smith said.

And what if a minor is feeling sick? The law is not completely clear on whether doctors can see unaccompanied youth without parental consent unless it’s a life-threatening emergency.

As the month of April went on, the crisis rushed in as students scattered. The Covenant House Academy — with its branches in Mexicantown, the lower east side and Midtown — sits right at the heart of one of the nation’s coronavirus hot spots. George, the Covenant House superintendent, lost two people in his life by May 1. One student lost a foster father and another lapsed into a coma after a positive COVID-19 diagnosis. As of early May, she regained consciousness but could not yet summon the strength to speak.

“It’s hitting home,” George said.

So in addition to all the other setbacks that Covenant House students have faced simply by getting through life, now there is the psychological weight of the crisis. It’s not just “Are you OK?” but “Have you lost anyone?”

“There are very few people who don’t know somebody who’s lost their life,” George said. “It is very, very real.”

For unaccompanied youths, the desperation is magnified.

“If you need to have a safe place to go, or anyplace to go, in the context of everything closed, you’re much more likely to find yourself in a situation where you’re at risk of being taken advantage of,” said Erb-Downward.

It’s not just a Detroit problem. A stopped economy hits every single county in the state. Well before all this started, the University of Michigan reported 12 school districts in the state with at least 14% of students experiencing homelessness — all with fewer than 1,400 students. The top 10 districts in terms of percentage of homelessness were all in the central or northern parts of the state — places such as Baldwin, Marion and Watersmeet.

“School is that five or seven hours of stability and affirmation that not every kid gets at home,” said George. “If you’re homeless or don’t live in a family that’s supportive, how else are you going to get that?”

II. Fight

Part of the difficulty with student homelessness is privacy. Students without consistent shelter are often called “the hidden homeless” because they hide their plight so well. Even the most well-off students conceal parts of their lives that could make them subject to ridicule and scorn, so homeless students will often refrain from divulging their personal problems to the noblest of friends and teachers. 

Teachers’ respect for privacy makes the search for homeless students even harder during a crisis like this. A group text to a collection of teens — even with the best intentions — could easily reveal a situation that shouldn’t be revealed. So there’s often a search for a student who can’t easily be found and shouldn’t easily be identified.

That places a lot of pressure on local districts and national allies. Schoolhouse Connection has a full page on how unaccompanied youth can file a tax return in the hopes of getting a stimulus payment. No Kid Hungry has a texting service to help find food. In one part of Georgia, school buses deliver food to public bus stops. In southern Oregon, one district is using its funds to buy and distribute pay-as-you-go phones. In Phoenix, schools suggest putting flyers and posters in campgrounds and hotels. One community college in North Carolina offered a “learning lot” where students can drive up and study between two buildings with Wi-Fi and campus security. “If you don’t have internet access at home,” the Robeson Community College site reads, “or if you need to get away from distractions at home to work on your schoolwork, this is the place for you!” The problem, of course, is the students who don’t have access to a car.

Here in Detroit, Smith’s definition of “care package” has expanded. Maybe it includes toothpaste, deodorant, bus passes, diapers or mobile hot spots. (She’s even contracted a therapist for youths with mental health needs.) At Covenant House, students have been encouraged to come for food on one side of the school and then technology supplies on the other — a crisis version of one-stop shopping. A truck from Gleaners Community Food Bank arrived in April and 300 meals were given out in less than an hour. But then there were the students who didn’t show, and so a math teacher named Liisa Keski-Hynnila went out looking for them.

She tracked down one family and brought food over but saw no furniture inside. Was this a home or an abandoned house? “There were a ton of houses right by them that were falling apart,” she said. “It looked like they just lived there.”

Keski-Hynnila has her own concerns. She delivers food as a second job. So she’s torn between wanting to help and needing to be safe and responsible. That’s the purgatory where so many teachers live now.

III. Future

A hellacious April has ended, and George is left with a disconcerting new reality: most everyone in the area will be dealing with some sort of fresh hurt.

“You get this collective trauma, this collective instability,” George said. “As a Detroit resident, that’s what I’m fearful of. I doubt there will be an adult in this city who does not know somebody who has died.”

So there are two missions: education and social work. And the two are intricately tied. Some homeless students are not only struggling to get by, but also charged with making the most income in their family. And those who make no income have to worry about a host becoming impatient or insolvent. “Getting kids to a full diploma quickly matters more than it ever has,” George said. “There’s even more of an urgency to it. Now the clock starts ticking in a whole new way.” He says new students are enrolling at Covenant House despite no clarity on when school will begin again.

George wrote a letter to the Covenant House community, urging readers to “Please reach out to any of our counselors and social workers if you are feeling down, anxious, or just need to talk with someone.” One of the staff goals is to contact every student at least once a week, record the conversation, and ask the following questions: “Are you OK with basic needs? Is anyone sick? How are you guys coping? Are you getting along with your family?” He estimates 80% of the school’s 540 students have been successfully contacted. That’s a triumph, but it raises scary questions about the other 20%.

If it’s clear a student needs help, the teacher can offer resources, including Gleaners’ willingness to go the literal extra mile. (Gleaners distributes at one of the Covenant House locations every Friday, and walk-ups are allowed.) George even met someone in a mall parking lot to do a shampoo drop-off. And beyond the day-to-day triage, Covenant House has leaned on social services center Starr Commonwealth in Albion.

“They are teaching all of us how to be more sensitive to kids with trauma,” George said. “How to speak with them and empathize with them. All of us will have to be sort of triage counselors. When do you listen? When do you speak?”

There is always some static in the channel when a child has experienced homelessness. There’s always some hidden fear, or shame, or truth, or all three. Now that static is multiplied, building into a steady noise which itself is louder because of the distance between the relatively safe harbor of school and the uncertainty of a city besieged by a silent killer. That distance makes every six feet seem like mile, and every city block seem like a gulf.

“I think we’re doing everything humanly possible,” George says. “We have to live with the reality that it’s not enough.”

It won’t be enough for a while. The end of the official school year presents its own challenges, even if COVID cases subside.

“As soon as we see an end on the moratorium on evictions, unless there are measures taken, you’re going to see a flood of people losing their homes,” says Erb-Downward.

In a normal year, Margaret Lee makes sure to stand at the front door of Covenant House on the very first day of school. She knows the homeless students tend to return from break first, finally able to return to routine and — in some cases — refuge.

“I’m there waiting patiently for them to come in,” she says. “You hug, you say, ‘We gotta talk!’ It’s just a joy to see them. Some come back hurt, some even with black eyes. But our kids are troupers. What they go through … I don’t think you and I could do it.”

What happens this year? Lee can only plan to be at that front door, whenever it opens. And she can only hope that all the students who walked out of those doors a few weeks ago will find their way back through them again.


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