`Did I fail, Ms. Darley?'

Iven and Gary face new problems as senior year closes, but only one of the boys is intent on reaching college

October 11, 2005|By LIZ BOWIE | LIZ BOWIE,SUN REPORTER

Third of four parts --Iven Bailey was on the move again. He carried two black trash bags, one for shoes, the other for everything else. He trudged down Harford Road past the wreckage of one abandoned building after another until he found what he was looking for, a dreary little rowhouse with a front door the color of dry dirt.

This would be his home for now. Or, rather, his dwelling.

It was early April of this year, and for the past three months, Iven, 18, had boarded with a neighborhood woman, Betty Jones, in a house two blocks to the north. But lately, living there had gotten downright scary. People came and went all the time. A kid Iven considered dangerously mean-tempered, and with whom he had once fought, had started hanging around.

Then on March 22, someone fired a gun right in front of Jones' house. It was the second shooting in two months on Tivoly Avenue. Everyone scrambled inside to avoid getting hit. When he heard the shots, Iven had been at the dining room table filling out a college scholarship application.

It was too much for him. A few days later, he was on his way down the street with his trash bags.

Iven was among Baltimore's 2,289 homeless students. A portion of them lived without parents or guardians, surviving alone under risky circumstances and with considerable privation.

The mother of a friend of Iven's had agreed to take him in for a while. It was his third move in just seven months.

"Damn," he thought to himself walking through the door, "all new surroundings."

Gary Sells, Iven's best friend, had at least avoided that sort of nomadic existence. He, too, was living on his own without parents. But, for the past four years, he had been able to remain in one place, the East Baltimore home of his late grandmother, Alice Sells.

Alice's two-story house on Guilford Avenue with its pretty stained-glass transom above the front door was the possession that mattered most to Gary. He might not have had much furniture or even a refrigerator, but he did have a key to a front door. He belonged here, and nobody could tell him to leave. Or so he thought.

Unknown to Gary, his father, Gary Sr., no longer held title to the property, which the Sells family had owned for 38 years. Nine months earlier, in the summer of 2004, someone had purchased the house from the city of Baltimore by paying $820 in past-due property taxes.

Gary found out one night in March when several officials in uniform appeared at the door and declared that anyone living there was trespassing.

The court summons they left was in legalese, but Gary understood what it meant. He was a squatter. He and his sisters would go to court in a month to find out when they would be evicted.

The one tangible piece of stability in his life was vanishing.

Iven's task force

Even with his living situation upended again, Iven somehow stayed on track. He seemed assured of graduating from Lake Clifton-Eastern High School in a couple of months. Nudged along by the school's principal, Lisa Tarter, he had even set his sights on getting into a two-year college. Tarter urged him to apply to Allegany College in Cumberland, where other Lake Clifton graduates had done well. He had also decided to apply to Lackawanna College in Pennsylvania and Dean College in Massachusetts.

The primary attraction: They were far away.

After school one day in late March, Tarter assembled a small task force to complete Iven's applications. His English teacher edited the essay while Tarter's secretary did the typing and the guidance counselor worked on financial aid forms.

In his essay, Iven wrote, "As bad as being homeless seems, it gave me my ambition and my dreams."

Iven had taken the SATs once in mid-winter. He got a 200, the minimum, in verbal and 325 in math. (In Baltimore City schools in 2004, the average verbal score was 400 and the average math score, 397.) He knew his scores were pathetic. He decided to try again, even though at that late date registering would cost him $70. That Saturday morning, he still had to wait to see if there would be room for him to take the test.

He got in and was rewarded with a verbal score 80 points higher. Later, on Tivoly, he told neighbors his scores had gone up and proudly accepted their congratulations. Dean College, Iven's first choice, expected a verbal score of at least 300. Iven hoped his 280 was close enough.

If Iven was involved in wishful thinking, Gary was engaged in pure fantasy. During spring vacation in March, he rooted through a shoebox where he had stashed query letters that colleges had sent the previous fall to high school athletes like him.

By that point, four-year schools were already putting the finishing touches on letters of acceptance for their freshman classes. Gary had no concept of what the college application process entailed. At that late date, he filled out forms to two elite universities he picked out of his box, Duke and Vanderbilt. He didn't bother to write accompanying essays or get teacher recommendations.

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