Teens need shelter - and our time

October 23, 2005|By STANLEY F. BATTLE

If Baltimore had a public boarding school for homeless teens, Iven Bailey might have been spared his nomadic existence. He might have even persuaded his best friend, Gary Sells, to join him there.

Considering the rundown rowhouse in which Mr. Sells lived without mother or father, it wasn't long before he, too, was out on his own - all the while trying to stay in school and graduate. As The Sun's recent series "On Their Own," painfully documented, homeless students such as Mr. Sells and Mr. Bailey, who are trying to stay in school and fend for themselves, have very few options.

Their stories forced all of us to revisit our humanity and the plight of homeless children in Baltimore. It was convenient for us to acknowledge their presence now in the face of such a searing series. Homeless children need support, but what form of relief should we provide? Charity alone might not be the solution.

In 2003, Coppin State University launched its Urban Educational Corridor, a series of linked schools that seek to capture the minds of children from kindergarten through high school. Academic excellence is required at the schools - Rosemont Elementary, William H. Lemmel Middle, Frederick Douglass High and the Coppin Academy - and standards must be maintained.

The Coppin Academy requires uniforms, a college preparatory curriculum and a study-abroad component. The university's involvement with these schools has shown that kids in precarious situations can learn and do well with the right support.

Coppin wants to develop a public boarding school for 60 children through the Urban Educational Corridor. It would provide a safe environment for children who lack caring adults in their lives, a setting with a focus on education and achievement. We would take full responsibility for these students, just as I do for my daughters. But funding is a serious problem. A public boarding school in Washington spends about $24,000 a year to house and educate a child.

While policymakers debate the merits of such a plan, there is a simpler solution to help homeless kids: we must work with one child at a time. Children need a home with caring adults who are willing to set standards and demand respect through love. And that is something more of us can offer now. Families and fraternities, sororities and churches could step in to assist this needy population.

At Coppin, there are students who are struggling to earn their education. Some of them are poor and come to Coppin with minds that need nourishment. Some of them need food for their bellies, and some of our faculty feed them. No one spends too much time focusing on whom to blame for their difficulties; we just meet them and feed them.

Some of our students have lived in homeless shelters and managed to graduate in seven years. It is difficult to explain to policymakers how some of our students manage to complete their education because they are invisible to so many.

In 1999, a young Puerto Rican man whom I knew at an East Coast university where I formerly worked moved in with my family while we lived in Milwaukee, Wis. His life has not been easy. His father died in prison, and his mother had many of her own problems. Consequently, he was raised by his grandmother.

Phillip faced many challenges in undergraduate school and left for a period. He ultimately finished his degree after I had moved to Milwaukee. I promised him that if he completed his bachelor's degree, he could live with my family while he pursued his master's degree. I was surprised when he decided to join us, but it was a clear message that he wanted to leave his living-on-the-edge lifestyle.

Phillip arrived at our home with all of his possessions in his small car. At 25, he still needed help with decorum at the dining table, dressing appropriately and conversing with women, an area in which my wife offered immeasurable advice. We worked with him and set high standards. He calls me Dad and my wife "Ms. B," or Mom. You can't help but love Phillip, but it was through the practice of tough love that he has come this far. He earned his master's and is enrolled in a doctoral program.

The solution for homeless teens such as Iven Bailey and Gary Sells is not a city, state or federal one alone. They need the support of adults who have the moral courage to step in and help them. These two young men have bravely overcome the odds and have a high school diploma to prove it, but there are others right behind them, sitting in classrooms now, wondering where they will sleep tonight.

Stanley F. Battle is president of Coppin State University.

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