Homeless schoolchildren face taunts, obstacles

May 12, 1991|By Sandra Crockett

To millions of television viewers, "Homey" is the homeless clown on the popular show "In Living Color," an outlandish character whose antics keep them laughing.

But to Keysha Smith, who lives in a shelter for the homeless in Baltimore, the name is a heartbreaking reminder of the taunting she endures from her schoolmates.

"They make fun of me," said the 11-year-old, casting her eyes down. "They call me 'Homey.' "

A friendly girl with expressive brown eyes, Keysha is one of some 4,000 Maryland children -- nearly half of them from the Baltimore area -- who travel every day from a shelter to a public school.

It is a journey filled with obstacles in the path of their education. Many suffer from poor self-esteem, a combination of ridicule from other youngsters and the trials of growing up.

Many also drift from school to school as their families move, and not surprisingly, their performance in class often suffers.

Keysha, who is in the fifth grade, has already attended six elementary schools. But some homeless children attend that many schools in a year.

For such children, one of life's biggest challenges will be to stay in school and get a chance to escape the cycle of poverty they have been caught in through no fault of their own.

Tomorrow, the state Department of Education will sponsor a conference at the Sheraton Towson on addressing the needs of homeless children. "Educating Homeless Children and Youth: Making a Real Commitment" will bring together educators, shelter providers, advocates and parents.

"The purpose is to heighten the awareness and sensitivities of the participants to the needs of homeless children -- to share ideas about what's going on in the state and things that can be done to enhance shelter and school partnerships," said Peggy Jackson-Jobe, the state's coordinator of education for homeless children.

Keysha Smith's life provides some insights into who these children are and how they cope with the situation they face.

Her mother, Cassandra Smith, is a budding cartoonist with six children, who sells her work at church fairs.

Her father, Louis Smith, works in the construction business but has been laid off during the recession.

Keysha, her mother, and her brothers Omar, 13, and Isaac, 12, have been homeless since July 1989 when Mrs. Smith, 37, decided she could no longer live with her husband and moved from their home in West Baltimore to a shelter.

Her three oldest boys live with relatives.

Mrs. Smith and her children spent anywhere from one night to two months at four shelters around Baltimore before coming to ** their current home, the city's Springhill shelter, in November 1989.

Springhill is a transitional shelter that allows families to stay for up to 18 months while they try to get their lives together and find housing.

At Springhill, near Druid Hill Park in West Baltimore, Keysha and her family share a small, bright but crowded one-bedroom apartment, one of 33 in the converted school building. Omar and Isaac share the bedroom, while Mrs. Smith and Keysha sleep on a bed and couch in the living room.

Keysha spends a lot of time in the downstairs playroom, where her mother works watching other children. There's a deck of "Old Maid" cards to play with, along with building blocks, bright pictures on the wall, a television and a Nintendo game.

The most striking thing about Keysha is the difference between the girl who lives in the shelter and the one who attends the nearby Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School.

Outside school, Keysha is lively, chatty and at ease with herself. She and her brothers are among the older children at the shelter, and the younger ones look up to them.

She often has a small child in her arms, wiping off a runny nose, combing hair or just playing games.

But in her fifth-grade class of 34 students, Keysha works quietly and alone.

She raises her hand to answer questions throughout the day, but rarely talks with her classmates.

"We were worried about her for a while, but she is better now,said Vivian Banks, her teacher. "Sometimes she is talkative, but generally she is withdrawn."

While she likes Mrs. Banks, Keysha makes no secret of how she feels about the school.

"I hate my school," she said, adding that the only things she likes about it are her reading lessons and dance classes.

Children everywhere, particularly at Keysha's age, will sometimes single out one student for ridicule.

Keysha believes she is that child. She doesn't understand why, and wonders if it is because her mother buys most of her clothes from thrift shops.

"It makes me feel sad," Keysha said. "The only friend that I have that goes to that school lives here."

She says nothing to children who pick on her but internalizes her feelings. "I just get mad," she said.

Mrs. Banks said Keysha will sometimes tell her that children are making fun of her.

"We try to nip that in the bud," the teacher said.

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