- Faith & Family
Homelessness was once an issue that tended to impact adults — many of whom were suffering from mental illnesses, alcohol or drug addictions. A smaller percentage of the homeless included veterans suffering from post traumatic stress disorder. But in recent years, the face of homelessness has dramatically changed. Today we see two groups becoming homeless with disturbing frequency: Blacks and children. In an effort to address this community problem, Miami-Dade County’s Homeless Trust [M-DCHT] held its fourth annual “Homeless Awareness Day” last Thursday with a host of pep rallies, walks and strategy sessions. All of the events focused on the rising number of homeless youth who have the daunting task of trying to attend school but have no place to call home.
“We started the day with the Mayor’s forum where he spoke to local businesses to make them more aware of the problem of homelessness and how they can help,” said Hilda Fernandez, executive director, M-DCHT. But the real exciting part of the day was engaging students from 18 different high schools, middle schools and elementary schools throughout the County. Some walked through their neighborhoods with signs that said, ‘End Homelessness.’ Then we had over 1,000 high school students participate in pep rallies at the University of Miami and Florida Memorial University. The goal is to counter the myths about homelessness, expose the kids to those who were once homeless and to teach them more appropriate ways to treat their own peers that attend school each day and are homeless.”
Over 5,000 homeless students need help
Project Upstart is one of several programs run by the Foundation for New Education Initiatives, Inc., under the auspices of the Division of Student Services. They provide services to homeless students, their families and unaccompanied minors. According to data for the 2011-2012 school year, Project Upstart identified and provided services to 5,711 homeless children and youth who attended M-DCP schools throughout the County. Where did they live? In shelters, motels, vehicles, campgrounds, trailers, abandoned buildings and on the streets.
“We try to keep students in the school of origin or the school that is in their best interest so that they have as much consistency as possible,” said Deborah Montilla, district director for Student Services. “The homeless assistance program is under my purview and I know firsthand how difficult it is for these youth to try to do their best in school every day while also being homeless. We have developed a curriculum that is taught to all students regardless of age so that our kids are more sensitive about the issue. This came about after the senseless death of Norris Gaynor — a homeless man that three Broward County teens beat to death with a baseball bat in early 2006. The key to the lessons our children receive is that homelessness can happen to anyone and that even those who may be homeless deserve to be treated with dignity and respect.”
Youth become advocates to end homeless
Gelowe Jean, 18, is a senior at Miami Edison and a two-year member of the school’s Drug Free Youth in Town [DFYT] Club, facilitated by Delphine Gervais, an Edison alum and counselor for The Homeless Trust. Jean says she is committed to helping her classmates who are struggling with either drug abuse or homelessness. Jean’s story and her achievements this year are even more compelling given the fact that she now lives with an older sister after their mother died earlier this year.
“Being homeless does not mean being less than human,” she said. “I know I could be in their shoes. We have been taught that it doesn’t help to give money to people on the streets that say they’re homeless. If they really are homeless and need help, we know how to connect them with someone that can really help change their lives for the better.”
At a rally at Florida Memorial University, Miss Kimmy and DJ Ice, both from 99 JAMZ, led a packed audience of high school students get energized and educated before returning to their communities as part of a sign brigade. Student ambassadors from eight high schools including Carol City, Jackson and Northwestern talked about how they can make a difference.
“We need to build more places like Camillus House so that kids and even adults can be clean, have a safe place to eat and not have to sleep on the streets,” said Northwestern senior, Lamar Mitchell.
Shoniece Bennett, a student at Carol City said she wishes she could talk to President Obama about the challenges facing homeless youth.
“I would ask him how he grew up and what he saw during his youth,” she said. “He says he lived a normal childhood but I wonder if he really understands how seriously homelessness effects young people in Miami. I would invite him to walk with me so I could show him what kids are facing.”
Shartrice Lubin, a student at North Miami Beach agreed but with one caveat.
“Sure, I would love to accompany the President through the streets of Miami but I’d take him to places that a lot of people don’t know about — places where kids live that aren’t fit for humans. Some of the shelters need a lot of improvements and need to be cleaned up. Those places and the people who are forced to live there need our help the most.”
By D. Kevin McNeir