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November 13, 2005 - Reno Gazette-Journal (NV)

Kids On The Edge

By Ray Hagar

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

Belgica Senn, her husband and seven children huddle together in a 600-square foot, one-bedroom apartment. They live with Senn's sister after moving to Reno to find a better life.

What they found were low wages and high rents.

Finding subsidized housing that allows nine people has been difficult, Senn said. The American dream of home ownership, especially in the ever-expensive Washoe County market, is beyond the reach of near-minimum wage workers.

Senn's sister is violating her lease by allowing them to live there, 10 in the room. If caught, they'll be evicted. A cloud of fear hangs over their heads. They feel they have no place else to go.

"It's like rats in a cage," Senn said of the cramped quarters.

The children -- six in the Washoe County School District -- must be church-mouse quiet to avoid discovery and eviction.

"I tell them, 'Whatever you do, don't make too much noise or we'll all be staying down by the river,'" Senn said.

Sarah Reiter, 17, is a junior at North Valleys High. She refuses to live with either of her separated parents.

She also has bounced around a lot in her life.

She estimates she has lived in about 50 different situations -- from foster homes, cheap motels or friends' homes -- since she was 4 years old.

"Most kids my age, if they have a plan for life, they have parents that will help them out so they can get where they want to be," she said. "It makes me insecure to know that I don't have that. If I'm going to get anywhere, I'll have to do it on my own."

A Growing Population

Reiter and the Senn children are part of a growing student population in the Washoe County School District.

Officially, they are called Children in Transition. Unofficially, they are considered homeless. They are students who live in "temporary" housing, lacking a real home or any sense of security.

Some live on the streets, others in vehicles or unattached trailers, officials said. Others reside in the one-room motels on Fourth Street where cramped quarters, meth, crack cocaine, prostitution and spousal abuse can be major detriments to getting an education, police said.

Some live on the couches at friends' houses. Some travel from house to house until their welcome wanes.

More than 1,440 students were enrolled last year as Children In Transition in the district. Ten years ago, school district officials estimated they had 300. Population growth has fueled the numbers, although district officials also credit better and more accurate enrollment procedures.

The district employs a staff of three -- including advocates at every school -- to help the population with its education and the basic necessities of food, shelter, clothing and hygiene. Washoe's CIT program is funded by a $100,000 federal grant, with about $60,000 going to various before- and after-school tutorial programs.

"What I see are families struggling," said Gloria Bratiotis, the homeless program director for Washoe schools, in describing a typical motel setting. "They have hot plates on the dressers, a small refrigerator, microwave and pets. They have all their worldly possessions in black plastic bags stacked in a corner."

Some counselors and principals say the 1,447 students registered as CIT last year do not tell the whole story. As many as 2,100 or 2,200 probably attend Washoe schools but they or their parents are either too embarrassed or fearful to enroll for help, officials said.

Their despair can be overwhelming even though various agencies and groups work tirelessly to provide subsidized housing, food and clothing. The need, however, far outweighs the resources, parents and school officials said.

"A lot of times, it seems like things are hopeless," said Jackie Williams, a mother of five children living on the edge of homelessness. "One thing my children and I have is that we believe in each other. And eventually, we know things will get better."

Williams and her children got stuck in Reno three years after a drunk driver hit them and totaled their vehicle. They lived in seedy Fourth Street motels, recalling seeing spent syringes on the ground and hookers on the street.

Last summer, they lived in their van, pretending to be camping. They have scraped up enough money for an apartment but are struggling to stay there.

"If I have to go back to the motel, I figure child protection services will take my kids because it is not a safe environment at all," Williams said.

Some counselors lament that Washoe's homeless students are forgotten amid the community's outpouring of charity for victims of recent natural disasters.

"People around here or in any city collect money for the Hurricane Katrina victims and collect money for all the devastation around the world," said Monica Hawthorne, CIT advocate at Reno High School. "But they are not collecting money for the kids in this general area, and that has always bothered me. Why can't the firemen put their boots out in the intersection of Kietzke and Virginia for the needy right here in Reno, Nevada?"

Some school officials worry that proposed cuts in the federal budget to pay for hurricane relief will mean cuts in funding for CIT programs. Only three Nevada districts -- Washoe, Clark and Carson City -- receive federal CIT funding. If more Nevada districts apply, dollars for Washoe may decrease, Bratiotis said.

"We live year to year," Bratiotis said.

Trapped In Generations Of Poverty

Homeless students in Washoe County range from kindergarten to 12th grade, officials said. All district schools -- even those in affluent neighborhoods such as Galena High School or Roy Gomm Elementary -- have homeless children, according to documents.

Many are trapped in a generational cycle of poverty, despite their homeless-to-Harvard dream, officials said.

"The norm is that most of the children from these families will remain in poverty, live this lifestyle the remainder of their lives and pass it on to their children," Bratiotis said.

Education is the only way out, parents, police and officials said.

"My mom's mom struggled and had to go into subsidized housing," Senn said. "My mom struggled and had to go into subsidized housing. I have struggled and have to go to subsidized housing. That is not something that I want for my children. That is why I want them educated. Even if I have to be Mrs. Tough-guy. I want to make sure they get those As and Bs."

Yet children in transition face obstacles to education other children can't fathom, according to district documents.

Many homeless students suffer from sleep deprivation -- brought on by numerous siblings in some cases, or by spousal fighting or drug abuse by parents.

"My children get frustrated. They go to school tired because this is so overwhelming," Senn said about living 10-to-a-room. "I tell them don't worry. We are saving up, but it is still hard."

Many homeless students also suffer from low self-esteem, emotional trauma, shame and depression, officials said. In many cases, they live with the mental-health problems and drug addictions of parents.

"When we have reached out to the community for mental health services for these families and children, we run into the problem of 'you don't have the right insurance or you don't have any insurance,'" said Stacy Ting-Senini, principal of Libby Booth Elementary School in Reno, where CIT students make up about 20 percent of the student population. "We can take care of them for 6 1/2 hours a day in the schoolhouse. But when they leave, we don't know what happens to them."

While at school, many endure relentless teasing brought on by poor hygiene, dirty-looking clothes or developmental delays. By high school, children can be so ashamed of their clothing that they will drop out, counselors said.

"A lot of kids love to make fun of the children who live in motels and they are very cruel about it," Williams said. "I had to wash clothes by hand (in the bathtub) a lot of times because I could not afford the laundry room. The kids were getting teased because their clothes were not washed in a washing machine. They were wearing dirty clothes, that's the way the kids put it.

"My kids went through that," Williams said. "I just told them that we are doing the best we can and that is the one thing you have to remember."

Even if the homeless did not have any of these issues, many are still plagued by a lack of a place to study or access to computers, which has become necessary in the modern educational environment.

"My kids grow frustrated very easily," Senn said. "A lot of times, it is so cramped that it takes forever to get their homework done.

"The noise -- I tell the little ones to be quiet so the older ones can do their homework. But sometimes there is so much noise. I try to give the little ones crayons just to keep them busy and quiet."

The Motels

It takes a strong family to survive living in the cheap motels on Fourth Street and downtown Reno, parents and police said.

The area is not conducive to education, unless its an education on the dark side of life, police said.

"We knew a middle school student who was a straight-A student when she and her mom moved into one of the motels," said Officer Tim Mayes of the Reno Police Department's Motel Interdiction team. "A year later, we started (drug) surveillance on a motel room, her room. When we raided the room, we found that a drug dealer was using mom's room as a storefront to sell rock cocaine. The little girl had a job. She answered three phones for the drug dealer. She was 12 years old.

"We looked around. There was no place for her to do homework," Mayes said. "She was consumed by the drug dealer in her room because her mom was a cocaine addict, and now she was failing school. And this was a smart kid. When they were getting arrested, she turned to her mom and said, 'I told you this was going to happen.' She was very streetwise but had no chance for an education."

When a loss of job because of disability force Eddie and Mary Dickson from their rented home into an odyssey of motel life, they saw major changes in their daughter, Victoria.

"She went from 6 years old to 26 in a matter of weeks," Eddie Dickson said. "Her happiness, her self-esteem, her pride in her parents, you could see that we were losing that girl. She had to fight everyday with those kids on the street, even over a Popsicle.

"She got violent," Dickson said. "She withdrew from us and started getting that it's-never-going-to-get-better attitude."

Even though the family has found housing in a trailer park in Sparks, Dickson fears being forced to return to the motels.

"I worry every day about having to go back to the motels. It scares me every day," he said.

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