The Invisible Children
Parents, teens, crying babies and screaming toddlers crowd the hallway outside the Mobile Hope office while the volunteer nurses inside wipe sweat from their foreheads.
While volunteers collect food and hygiene supplies, each family has five minutes to look through second-hand clothes heaped on shelves, squished onto racks and piled on tables. But five minutes is quickly 10, then 15, as children dig through boxes of stuffed puppies, rabbits and chicken beanie babies and parents sort through clothes for the right size.
“There are so many people waiting outside, so we have to tell you to leave now,” Mobile Hope director Donna Fortier tells a family, but one little girl who barely speaks English lingers, looking pleadingly at a coat hanger of belts. She grasps a black faux alligator-print one far too large for her, a hunted desperate expression in her eyes.
“Please, please, please… one that doesn’t cut,” she whispers, then dashes to the door, holding it close.
A few years ago, Fortier was shocked to realize these children even existed in Loudoun, the nation’s richest county.
During the 2011-2012 school year, Loudoun County Public Schools identified 785 homeless and precariously housed children in the public school system. That’s more than three times the 235 homeless children identified in 2008.
These children attend every high school and middle school across the county, from Dominion to Woodgrove, Harmony to Seneca Ridge. And 92 percent of elementary schools serve young children who have no stable bed to call their own.
The hallway never seems to empty as families pour in: The single mother with the 11-day-old baby and the red-rimmed eyes, the single father of two sons, 3 and 7, who needs deodorant and a razor, the eighth-grade girl with makeup who gladly takes nail polish and shampoo.
A young dark-haired woman enters the office with a 15- or 16-year-old boy who looks like her brother and two younger children. She must be no older than 18, though the darkness behind her eyes belies the weight of responsibility. She pulls aside a nurse and lowers her voice. “Do you have…?” She trails off and looks away, indicating her lower abdomen. The woman nods and slips her a box of tampons, newly donated from a school.
And these are only the families Loudoun County volunteers can identify.
An increase in students eligible for free meals leads school officials to believe that hundreds more homeless minors like her may have yet to be identified.
Falling through the cracks
A Purcellville woman called Fortier more than a year ago asking if the hospital could help the 27 homeless kids she was working with, and Fortier thought, “We don’t have homeless kids in Loudoun County; she’s got to be mistaken.”
Expecting a low turnout, she took Inova’s Mobile Health bus to a location where she heard people were in need. One of the first families she saw was a single mom with four kids who were living in the back of a van. She gave them each a bag of hygiene items.
“The little girl opened the bag, and started rummaging through the bag, and found a toothbrush, toothpaste and almost started to cry because she’s never owned one that was her own,” Fortier said. “I thought, ‘Oh my gosh’.... I couldn’t sleep at night.”
So a little more than a year ago, Fortier partnered with Inova to start Mobile Hope, the first and only emergency relief center in Loudoun County where children can get help without an adult. While many children are homeless along with their entire families, as many as four out of 10 do not have an active parent or guardian in their lives.
Mobile Hope volunteers are trained to recognize and report signs of abuse, but they only record information their clients volunteer. Often, they never even get their clients’ names – simply a number printed on the front of a Mobile Hope card.
The children she serves just want to blend in, Fortier says.
And that desire to blend means that child homelessness is difficult to identify.
Loudoun’s Continuum of Care (CoC) conducted an annual one-day homeless count in January 2011. During that one-day snapshot, CoC counted 47 homeless children and no unaccompanied minors.
What explains the drastic difference? According to County Coordinator Beth Rosenburg, CoC operates by the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s definition of the literally homeless: People who are in shelters or on the streets.
Public schools operate under the much broader definition established by the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act: a child qualifies as homeless if he or she “lacks a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence.” Often, homeless families will double up with relatives. Fortier said unaccompanied minors will couch surf, hiding their painful situation from their friends and teachers because they’re afraid or don’t know how to get help. Sometimes they’ll avoid sleeping at home due to domestic abuse, family conflicts, disowning or neglect.
When Fortier told one Inova nurse about Mobile Hope, the nurse was shocked to realize a child who had been sleeping on her own couch was homeless.
“They were like, ‘Oh my gosh, that child has no place to live,’” Fortier said. “And they just thought that it was their son’s friend sleeping over for the last three weeks because they’re great friends.”
“Here in Loudoun I don’t know if I’ve ever seen anyone with a cardboard sign on the sidewalk,” said Renee Brohard, a Mobile Hope spokesperson. “And of course these kids aren’t doing that; they’re asking their friends, ‘Can I come spend the night at your house tomorrow?’ [These kids] just seem to fall through the cracks.”
Most of the resources the county offers homeless children come through the schools. McKinney-Vento requires LCPS to immediately enroll a homeless child even when the child does not have a fixed address and to allow the child to stay in school even if his or her family moves out of the district. The act gives children confidentiality, meal assistance and a stable place to stay during the day.
But while there are many housing resources for families, none of Loudoun’s nighttime emergency homeless shelters take unaccompanied minors. The Loudoun County Youth Shelter, which only has 12 beds, is a short-term shelter specifically targeted to children awaiting foster homes and those referred by the courts or mental health.
Last year, Fairfax schools identified 2,586 homeless children through McKinney-Vento. Yet Fairfax has about three times the population of Loudoun, and consequently, unaccompanied homeless children have more resources.
Alternative House is part of Fairfax’s Homeless Youth Initiative, and it provides unaccompanied minors with housing via small rent subsidies, private host homes and a shelter for young women. Like Mobile Hope, Alternative House also provides a van that distributes survival supplies to children in need. The nonprofit also operates a youth center in Culmore where teens can get a hot dinner, homework help and help filling out resumes and college applications.
Someday, Fortier envisions a similar safe haven in Loudoun for children who don’t have a stable parent or guardian.
“I’d like to see that kids don’t have to have an adult with them to go to the free clinic, to go to a food bank, to open a bank account as a minor,” she said.
In the meantime, Mobile Hope volunteers continue to show up several times a week, handing out food and facing diaper shortages.
Yet Fortier says the courage of these children helps her keep going: “They’ve been kicked out of the house, their mom or dad has lost their job or they’re not in the picture, and yet they get up every morning and go to school and maintain their grades. I think that speaks volumes to their character.”
This is part one of a two-part series on homeless children in Loudoun County.