Penny Thornton and Kaleb, 12, outside their east Raleigh apartment | Photo by RDP3 Photography

A Home Truth

In Feature Stories, February 2020 by Jane PorterLeave a Comment

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4,131 students in Wake schools were without permanent housing last year. That number is poised to climb. 

Groups of chattering elementary school kids, hair bows and glasses askew, spill into the lobby of the Raleigh Rescue Mission on East Hargett Street on an unseasonably warm January afternoon. 

In the sea of small bodies hauling “Frozen” and “Spiderman” book bags are Jah’cere, 9, and his sisters, Serenity, 7, and Justice, 5. The school bus has just dropped them off near the Mission and the kids are excited to see their mother, Tiara Parks. Justice jumps in Parks’ lap as Jah’cere commandeers her smart phone. They’ll have a little time to spend together, along with their older brothers Sincere, 11, and Nicere, 10, before they head downstairs to the Mission’s dining room for supper at 5:30. 

Parks has lived at the Mission with her children since August. Her Section 8 housing voucher expired and, after staying at her sister’s home for several months, Parks couldn’t find another place for the family to live that she could afford. Parks works at the Mission as a cleaner and she’s saving her money and looking for a job in security or customer service. Her partner, the kids’ father, will reunite with the family this month after completing a five-year prison sentence.

“It’s so hard,” Parks says. “I’m ready to start working and to get to the next step to be on my own. With what my kids have going on, sometimes I’m ready to have a panic attack. I need to be in my own space.” 

Tiara Parks and Jah’cere, 9, Serenity, 7, and Justice, 5, pictured in downtown Raleigh | Photo by f8 Photo Studios
Tiara Parks and Jah’cere, 9, Serenity, 7, and Justice, 5, pictured in downtown Raleigh | Photo by f8 Photo Studios

Data from the Wake County Public School System for the 2018-2019 school year put the number of students in K-12 experiencing homelessness at 4,131—roughly 3 percent of all students—with an additional 231 younger children in the county in need of stable housing. The numbers include kids living in shelters like Parks’ family, “doubling up” with relatives, acquaintances or strangers, living in motels, out of cars, couch surfing at friends’ homes or, especially for older teens, living without any kind of shelter at all. 

And the numbers have been climbing, marking a 55 percent increase since the 2014-2015 school year and an 86 percent increase over the last decade. This year’s numbers are expected to soar even higher, a trend that’s tracking seamlessly with the county’s explosive growth and burgeoning affordable housing crisis. In general, stagnant wages, a dearth of well-paying jobs for workers without college degrees and high costs of medical care compound the problem. In the last decade, according to data from the U.S. Department of Education, there was a 70 percent jump in homelessness for K-12 students. Nationally, around 1.3 million students experienced homelessness during the 2016-2017 school year. 

“Years ago, I would have said that there were different rates of homelessness in schools across [Wake County],” says Michelle Mozingo, the McKinney-Vento district liaison for students in Wake schools. Mozingo manages services for students who have been displaced and is responsible for collecting data on their numbers. “Now, I really can’t say that. Every school has kids who are identified. Pre-school through high school. It’s much more spread out. There are no pockets anymore, like we used to see.” 

Under the federal McKinney-Vento Act, Mozingo and a team of more than 100 social workers in Wake schools work to ensure students can stay in the schools they were attending when they were displaced, that they have transportation to and from school and that their basic needs—food, hygiene, healthcare—are met. Stability, Mozingo says, is crucial for students’ success.

Sandra Baker* can attest to that. She fled Los Angeles for Raleigh (where she had family living close by) two years ago, after her longtime partner, her children’s father, became violent and abusive. Finding herself and her then-3-year-old daughter, Brienne,* and infant son, Chris,* without a home, and in need of a job—she had worked in the film industry back in LA—Baker connected with the local nonprofit Families Together. The group agreed to pay for a deposit and the first month’s rent for an apartment while Baker got back on her feet.

“My daughter had a speech impediment,” Baker explains, a condition she says she attributes to the violence Brienne witnessed paired with the family’s stint of not having a stable place to live. “I hired a speech therapist to work with her. Within the first six months of her being [in a permanent home], she thrived. Her Pre-K teacher said how thoughtful and intelligent she is. The hidden gem is stability for children.”

Brienne is now in kindergarten at Beaverdam Elementary School, where, Baker says, she continues to flourish. Chris is a lively, fun-loving two year old with a mohawk and a gap-toothed smile. He goes to day care while Baker splits her time between work and school.

“[Brienne’s] teacher says she is top of her class,” says Baker. “She’s taking the lead, teaching her peers, helping to calm them. She just has that spirit in her which didn’t come out until we got her to a place where we felt settled.”

That place wasn’t easy to come by. Again and again, Baker says she ran into obstacles from landlords unwilling to rent to her. 

Lisa Rowe, executive director of Families Together, the nonprofit that helped Baker and assists families in transitioning to permanent housing, says that this is a common problem in Wake County. Landlords charge high rents because they can. Sometimes they’ll demand tenants make up to three times the monthly rental price before they’ll lease to them. Many refuse to accept housing vouchers or won’t rent to people who have prior evictions on their records.

“We’re finding it increasingly difficult to find housing and wages aren’t keeping up,” Rowe explains in a conference room at the nonprofit’s headquarters, a house off of New Bern Avenue with four units upstairs that Families Together uses to house families in urgent need of shelter. The building is located near motels, including a Budgetel Inn, where dozens of parents currently stay longterm with their school aged children. Rowe says four years ago, 225 kids enrolled in Wake schools listed a motel as their address; for the 2018-2019 school year, that number jumped to nearly 1,000. 

“The goal is, someone shouldn’t be paying more than 30 percent of their income in rent,” Rowe continues. “The reality is, poor people do. They are living on the edge because of it and having to make decisions every day about medication versus food versus rent. They can pay it. They shouldn’t have to, but they can. But [landlords] won’t even accept them, even if they have a clean credit history, a full-time job. If the rent is $1,000, and they don’t make $3,000, they can’t rent it.”

Mozingo, the district liaison, says most of the families her team works with are working families, parents who hold sometimes multiple low wage jobs.

Penny Thornton, a mother of two boys, Kaleb, 12, and Zuri, 19, is one such parent. Two years ago, Thornton lost her full-time job. She couldn’t make rent and she, Kaleb and Zuri were evicted from their north Raleigh home. Families Together gave them a temporary shelter while Kaleb finished out fifth grade. The family transitioned into permanent housing a year and a half ago, when Kaleb—an amiable, soft-spoken almost-teenager who plays guitar, loves walking his black lab, Mars, and riding around on his red bicycle—was attending middle school at Moore Square Magnet.

Thornton works five jobs, including as a teacher’s assistant at Longview School, as a personal care aid for a little boy who is paralyzed and at a chiropractor’s office. She says the experience of losing their home still haunts them. Once she and her boys secured their own place—an apartment in a run-down complex off of Raleigh Boulevard for which they pay $850 a month in rent—Kaleb was transferred to Leesville Road Middle School, on the other side of town, for 7th grade. Thornton requested to have Kaleb transferred back to Moore Square but was denied. 

“He was looking forward to connecting with the old staff, his mentors, his teachers,” Thornton says as we sit at her kitchen table in the apartment she’s decorated with family photos and her own colorful paintings. “I couldn’t understand. They knew we had been homeless and they still said no. He can’t come back.”

The rise of what’s known as “situational homelessness”— what happens when a breadwinner loses their job, as in Thornton’s case, or in domestic violence situations, as in Baker’s, or when a family is evicted or, faced with crushing medical debt, or a spouse dies, or a home is destroyed in a fire—now accounts for some 70 to 80 percent of all people experiencing homelessness, says John Luckett, the Raleigh Rescue Mission’s executive director. 

In other words, it could happen to virtually anyone.

Sandra Baker*, Brienne*, 5, and Chris*, 2, pictured at Union Station | Photo by Jennifer Robertson
Sandra Baker*, Brienne*, 5, and Chris*, 2, pictured at Union Station | Photo by Jennifer Robertson

“They’re the hidden homeless,” Luckett explains. “You walk by them and they have on decent clothes and you wouldn’t know they’re homeless. They don’t want you to know. They’re trying to get back into the mainstream.”

Luckett came to Raleigh from Atlanta nearly three years ago to help the 58-year-old Mission “become more effective in impacting individuals affected by the shift in the root causes of homelessness,” in his words. This includes looking not just at how to get families into the county’s dwindling stock of affordable housing but also at issues such as transportation, education, employment and the high cost of childcare. 

For children, the Mission offers an onsite nursery and preschool, before and after school care, summer and track out camps, mental health screening, academic assistance and tutoring, field trips, family fun nights and homework assistance.

“Historically, the easiest way to break the cycle of poverty is to start with the children,” Luckett says. “They have a much better opportunity to break the cycle there. But our challenge is, 87 percent of children who are homeless are likely to drop out of school. That feeds into the school-to-prison pipeline.”

The parents of the children Raleigh Magazine spoke to for this story all say their kids have been impacted by their displacement, requiring counseling and other interventions to help them process the trauma of losing their homes. In the most serious case, Tiara Parks says her oldest child, Sincere, had to be hospitalized at Holly Hill last fall.

“He went through a phase where he felt like nobody liked him,” Parks says. “He wasn’t making friends. He just felt that no one would care if he wasn’t here. He was thinking about hurting himself.” 

Parks says her kids are prone to tantrums and that she never knows what could set them off. She says her oldest boys go through phases where they’ll repeatedly get suspended from school. 

But in most ways, Parks explains, her kids are like any others: they love reading, running around outdoors, riding on scooters, playing computer games. They like to go to Marbles Kids Museum, to baseball games, to the movies or to Disney On Ice. 

Despite what the family has been through, Parks says, she is optimistic about the future. She says she hopes getting their own place, and the kids’ father coming home, will bring some calm and stability back to their lives. 

Sandra Baker, mom to Brienne and Chris, and Kaleb’s mom, Penny Thornton, say their kids are doing much better now that they’re in stable homes. 

Kaleb, who is currently home schooled, will turn 13 in July and Thornton says she is hopeful that he’ll get back into Moore Square Magnet School, where the new school year starts this summer, to finish out his middle school career. Kaleb says he has maintained his friendships and has continued learning the guitar on his own, practicing bar chords and holding impromptu musical performances. 

Baker started a course in city planning at East Carolina last month. She says she loves the family’s home in Raleigh’s Hedingham neighborhood, where they’ve been living now for a year and a half. 

“Resilience became a big thing that came into play,” Baker says. “Don’t let it break you. We fell on hard times but we are not defined by that. Sometimes you just need a helping hand. Not a handout. A hand up.”

*Names have been changed

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