Homelessness ate my homework


“You can hire 10,000 people for 10 to 15 minutes,” says Gigwalk CEO Bob Bahramipour. “When they’re done, those 10,000 people just melt away.”

Temporary jobs becoming a permanent fixture

Just before I left town this spring, a woman I knew who frequented the Day Center serving the homeless in Grand Junction had been hired to do overnight stocking at a local Wal-Mart. She was very excited—not because it was a great job or that she was the excitable type, but because it gave her “a chance to get out of this situation I’m in.”

I’ll be very interested to find out if it did.

A few weeks ago, I heard a story from a teacher friend who had spent all year putting extra effort into keeping a child in her fifth-grade class. The girl had six different residences during the year, including a motel and the apartment of her father’s ex-girlfriend, who the dad was trying to get removed as a custodial adult because it turned out the gf was bad news.

Through all the drama and turmoil, the girl kept making it to class—largely because of three factors: a federal law that guarantees homeless children transportation to the school where they are enrolled, regardless of their address; a teacher and support staff who went the extra mile; and a father who stayed employed and cared deeply about what happened to his daughter.

His job was in night warehousing at Wal-Mart.

His supervisor liked him and kept his job open for him when he spent 10 days in jail while a domestic complaint was being sorted through with the ex-girl-friend. By the teacher’s account, the father, who came here from rural West Virginia, is stable and hard-working but uneducated and unsophisticated.

And he doesn’t make enough money at his job to hang onto housing.

A recent report by Minnesota Housing Partnership underscores the connection between low-wage employment, affordable housing supply, homelessness and children. Minnesota 2020 summarizes:

[I]n Hennepin County, an average of 330 families sought shelter each month, an increase of 115 (69%) from two years ago. Of particular concern is the fact that the data show both the length of stay in a shelter, and the number of families returning to shelters after periods of being housed, is increasing. Similarly, Minneapolis and Saint Paul public schools reported roughly 1000 more children as being homeless than they did at the recession’s height.

My teacher friend described how just finding where the student was staying and getting her to class was only the start of the daily battle. She sometimes got separated from her homework or was unable to complete it. At least in one case, the girl couldn’t produce a major, ongoing assignment. With the teacher’s help, she located the work—and they found a second version in her things as well.

Despite her chaotic home situation, she’d completed the homework twice—but distracted by the stress in her home situation, she couldn’t remember having done it even once.

How long is a motivated, intelligent girl going to be able to keep progressing under this stress? What if she’d been in the classroom of a neophyte Teach for America teacher, instead of having one with nearly 40 years of experience who could navigate all kinds of obstacles in and out of the school? What if the school’s systems weren’t geared to supporting her special needs and instead treated her as truant or an unmotivated student?

There’s clearly dysfunction in the way Minnesota schools are addressing the educational achievement gap. We tend to cast it in terms of a racial divide, but it is also a poverty divide. Temporary and low-wage jobs that seem to offer a way up for people at the bottom don’t necessarily offer a path to permanency or stability. (Only 27% of temp jobs lead to “permanent positions” with an employer.)

It’s not just Wal-Mart hiring people who desperately need jobs and then paying too little for them to achieve security they desperately need. You could see the same issues unfold at other employers in all kinds of sectors who are hiring better educated workers. Even a marginally higher wage to a temp or contract worker isn’t that great if the hours and duration are too low to pay for housing and other basic needs.

Nothing in life is permanent, of course. But for an increasing number of Americans, even the illusion of permanency ain’t what it used to be.