Making it Through
Helen Fox helps Albuquerque's homeless kids find their way around our public schools
By Marisa Demarco
Fourteen years ago, Albuquerque Public Schools called Helen Fox and asked her to figure out what to do with a small grant they were receiving for homeless students. "Not a lot was going on with it," she says. "Basically, the reason why was that it was not a lot of money."
She had a background in social work and special education, but charged with the task of finding and helping Albuquerque's homeless students, Fox found herself facing a problem larger than anyone had anticipated. With just one aide at her side, she began the long process of corraling grants and developing programs that went beyond ensuring homeless kids got enrolled in school. Thus began the Homeless Project, a faction of APS dedicated to helping students negotiate the public education system.
Let's start with numbers. How many kids in Albuquerque are homeless?
In the early days, we thought there would be somewhere around 400 or 500 children a year that needed to be enrolled and helped with school. We decided to put a program together, so myself and one educational assistant 14 years ago started the program and discovered in a hurry that there was a whole lot more to it than met the eye. Just going out and talking in the community, you could see how unrealistic the numbers were.
Last year, we enrolled 3,328 children that were homeless.
Oh my gosh.
Right. By federal definition that's children who live in shelters, motels, cars, RV campers, out in the open spaces or where multiple families are doubled up living together. We had children in 143 schools in Albuquerque last year. We serve preschool-aged through 12th grade.
The law basically calls for you to be sure they are enrolled and that they have a backpack and so forth. Having been in the business of children for many years by the time I started the program, I just wasn't comfortable with the idea that those things were all children needed. From there, we began grant writing. I'm not sure how, but we've been phenomenally successful in grant writing. This last year, we wrote seven grants, and we got them all.
That 3,328, is that the most recent number?
It's hard to say. We count by the year. For our count we start in June. From June until November of this year we've already enrolled more than 2,000. But we won’t have a final count for this year until May.
What kinds of services do you provide for kids?
We're now a full-service program that provides not only services to get children in school, we provide them with clothing, backpacks and school supplies. We pay for fees for them and things of that sort. We run a tutoring site two nights a week where we serve the children a hot meal and bus them back to where they're staying. We run two summer programs. We are hooked up with a number of agencies in town who provide, with no cost, full-time case managers for our neediest families that have had the most traumatic experiences.
The mayor has been wonderful; he took a huge interest in our program and we recieve $150,000 a year from the city.
You started small, just you and one other person. How has this expanded?
We see to health and mental health issues. We give parents referrals for where to go so they might get help. We try to provide as much help and support to families as we can. Also, today I have 20 people, either full- or part-time, working for me.
Do you feel like you're able to reach the majority of homeless children in Albuquerque? Are there a lot of people not being reached?
Well, it's really, really hard to say. We receive new referrals every single day. There's not a day that goes by that we don't get a referral from a councilor, an agency, a parent themselves. It's an elusive number. You can't put your finger on it.
Do you seek people out?
We do an outreach program to the motels on Central. We have a number of families that live in the older motels. The people that work for me, they're assigned a certain number of schools and they're out in those schools asking, "Do you have children that you think might be homeless that we can check on and see what we can do?"
Do we have more homeless people in Albuquerque than when you started?
I don't think homelessness has grown over the years much, but I think when we started people didn't know about us. Schools didn't know about us, and now we're out and about and in the schools every day. That's why our numbers have grown. People can be homeless for a short period of time and then go off the rolls. So on any given day, we couldn't point to 3,000 kids, because they're moving in and out of town, some of them become housed, different kinds of things.
What are the struggles that homeless students might face that other kids don't?
They have poor nutrition, so they tend to be ill more. They sometimes have a lot of emotional problems due to their circumstances and moving all the time. Not knowing today where you're going to be tonight is very emotionally upsetting. Not having clothes and things that everybody else has to wear to school. Moving so often that you never have the opportunity to really make a friend or get to know your school or your teacher. Having transportation to get to school. Knowing how to work the system to be able to get food at school or whatever ... many, many of our children rarely ever get an evening meal. They have a great barrier.
Do you think there are enough services here for homeless youth?
There are many good services here. Albuquerque does a good job. The hardest part for teenagers, particularly if they're an unaccompanied youth on their own and not with a parent and still trying to go to school, is that housing for those children is a next to impossible thing to come up with.
How often do you see kids who are not with families and parents?
The majority of our high school kids are on their own.
Are all the homeless students receptive to getting help?
No. Not 100 percent. The majority of people are.
Do they ever seem embarrassed?
That can happen, particularly to older students. But I have this absolutely stellar staff that relate to children so beautifully, they make a difference every day.
What are some memorable interactions you've had with students?
This past year, we have a rather significant number of children that graduated from high school. Our dream, of course, is to double that number every year. We had 62. Three of those children went on to college, CNM or UNM. The exciting part was that they all have a job.
These are the most joyous, wonderful children you could ever work with, because if any of us had to live any given day like some of them do—and somebody would expect us to get up and come to school and have a smile on our face and act like everything's just wonderful—I'm not sure I could do it. But these kids do it every day. They want all the same things everybody else does. They are absolutely, unbelievably resilient.
For more on the Homeless Project or to donate school supplies, backpacks and nonperishable food, call Helen Fox at 256-8239 ext. 11.
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