IOWA CITY — To fully understand the situation, let’s look at some numbers.
-- Over the past five years, no fewer than 6,700 homeless children and teenagers have walked the halls of Iowa’s public schools.
-- That number peaked during the 2011-12 school year, with the Iowa Department of Education reporting more than 7,450 homeless students, while there were nearly 7,000 homeless students in Iowa in the 2015-16 year, according to five years of Department of Education data obtained by The Gazette.
-- Throughout 2015, about 12,900 homeless individuals were served by Iowa agencies, according to Iowa’s Institute for Community Alliances. They were served in emergency shelters, transitional housing, rapid rehousing or street outreach programs.
-- Another 8,174 Iowans were at risk of homelessness and either served in permanent supportive housing or homelessness prevention programs, according to the group.
That means about one-third of homeless or at-risk Iowans between 2015 and 2016 were kids in public schools, according to available data.
Each of Iowa’s 333 public school districts has a homeless liaison who can identify a student who lacks a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence. The goal for students is stability and the chance to flourish academically, said Geri McMahon, Iowa DOE administrative consultant who advocates for homeless students.
The National Center for Homeless Education found that homeless students have more acute and chronic illness, depression and anxiety, poor classroom engagement, and poorer social skills in early elementary school. The center also found that youth who experience homelessness are 7 percent more likely to drop out of school.
“When you have very little financial resources, a small problem becomes a big one very quickly."
- Rachel Lehmann
Housing case manager, Shelter House
All Iowa students classified as homeless receive free school lunches, and the district tries to remove any barriers to success by providing supplies, such as pencils, paper or tennis shoes for gym class. Districts also help students in extracurricular activities and provide academic tutoring. McMahon said she knows more districts also have a closet full of clean clothes, a washer and dryer, shower and hygiene kits for homeless students.
“Most of us understand that one of the ways out of poverty and homelessness would be education,” McMahon said. “They’re kind of the unfortunate bystander in the situation. They’re dealing with a lot of transition in their world and their minds are pretty preoccupied.”
McMahon is right that children are often the victim to their parents’ challenges, such as economic instability, affordable housing, low wages, health problems, lack of health insurance, addiction, domestic violence, natural disasters and family dysfunction.
Though the majority of homeless students in the state are living “doubled up,” or with another family, the second most likely living situation is in a shelter, similar to the Johnson family.
‘Me and mom struggle’: The Johnson family's story
After school on a Tuesday afternoon, Kyle Johnson tugged on his father’s arm on the way to a corner table in the Iowa City Public Library. The 8-year-old urgently reminded his dad, Tommie Johnson, that he wanted the boxer puppy he saw at the local Petland store.
Kyle, the youngest of Tommie’s seven children, grew up with a German shepherd. But as the dog grew older, Kyle said he got “too rough,” and it was difficult to bring him along as the family moved from city to city, apartments to shelters.
Now, Tommie takes the kids on trips to Petland to look at the animals. They also cruise neighborhood streets in Iowa City to daydream about a house with a yard big enough to hold Kyle’s dog and a trampoline for gymnastics-obsessed Simone, 10.
"We’re a family that dreams real big...And we’re all still together. That’s something pretty special, in our situation.”
- Tommie Johnson
Occasionally, Tommie, his wife, Iesha Tyler, and the couple’s five children — ages 8 to 17 — sleep in the family’s tan Honda Odyssey.
Tommie has two older children who live with relatives near Chicago. It’s been that way at least since Tommie and Iesha were married more than 13 years ago.
“I had a really rough coming up,” Tommie said. “I never saw myself getting married, but it happened. As soon as it happened, here comes baby No. 1, here comes baby No. 2. What it comes down to is budgeting everything, down to the last red cent.”
Tommie and Iesha both grew up in Chicago. Tommie, who graduated high school, is the family’s main breadwinner, working manual labor projects, picking up odd jobs and seasonal employment.
A learning disability that makes “certain things hard to put into words” has prevented Iesha from full-time employment.
The family has bounced from Tommie’s mother’s home in Ohio to stints in various shelters across the Midwest, often sleeping in the van in between and cleaning up the kids at a local McDonald’s each morning.
While sleeping in the van on winter nights presents a deep sense of insecurity, it’s even more difficult with children, Tommie said. He would often drop his wife and the five children off at hospitals and churches — anywhere he thought the kids could spend a night indoors.
“It affects the kids, it really does,” Tommie said. “Sometimes they say, ‘daddy, mom, where are we going to sleep at?’ And then you think, ‘Oh, man, they’re smarter than I thought.’ Me and mom struggle. Somewhere, down that tunnel, there’s got to be a light at the end. It’s their lives, too, at stake and not just ours. What drives me is the kids.”
About a year ago, the Johnson family moved to Iowa City for a chance to start over.
Tommie worked manual labor jobs and padded his income with odd jobs, such as ringing a bell for the Salvation Army’s Red Kettle holiday campaign. But nothing seemed to last, and no amount of doubling up jobs could pay for an apartment to house seven people in a college town where rent is infamously high.
Out of all the places the family has sheltered, the van is Simone’s least favorite.
“When we first was starting to sleep in the van, I was kind of crying and laughing at the same time ’cause I didn’t want to sleep there. But it was Kyle’s faces that were making me laugh,” Simone explained.
The family also enrolled in a housing program with the Shelter House in Iowa City about a year ago. The organization helped them find a two-bedroom apartment on Kirkwood Street. Shelter House helped with the rent deposit, but as the program phased out, the $1,500-a-month rent was too much, even with Tommie working three jobs, he said.
After going back to Chicago and returning again to Iowa City this summer, the family is again looking for permanent housing. They spent 90 days at the Iowa City Catholic Worker House — about 60 days longer than an average stay in the house — said co-founder David Goodner.
In September, the Johnsons were in the middle of a 45-day stay at Shelter House once again. Tommie now works as a maintenance worker at a local TJ Maxx store. But struggles are around every corner.
“We have enough money to go check a place out and then my car gets towed, this kid needs this, this kid needs that,” Tommie said. “After all the disappointments and rejections ... nights that (Iesha) would break down and cry, ‘Why are we living like this?,’ all the pressure’s on me. I have to tell her, ‘We’re going to have to do this, but please don’t leave me. Things will get better.’ ”
The family goes day-by-day, tapping into as many community resources as possible.
After the kids get out of school, they know to meet their parents at the Iowa City Public Library where they roam the brightly colored children’s section. Simone spends her time researching gymnastics techniques. Tommie and Iesha typically spend their afternoons searching for affordable housing.
The two older boys — Daviyae, 17, and Javon, 15 — wander in on their own time.
Each evening, they pile into the van and drive a few blocks to the downtown Salvation Army for dinner. During an evening in early September, the family lined up for stuffed and blistered bell peppers coated in enchilada sauce, popcorn chicken, cakes and cookies served by familiar staff and volunteers.
Angelina, 9, an extrovert around her siblings, took her plate of popcorn chicken and puddle of ketchup into the next room to eat alone. Though she hasn’t made many friends at school, Angelina said sullenly that she has some friends who come to the Salvation Army.
“We’re a family that dreams real big,” Tommie said, watching Angelina as she mapped out her future house with a room for each of her siblings. “And we’re all still together. That’s something pretty special, in our situation.”
After dinner, the family typically heads back to the library or explores the Pedestrian Mall in downtown Iowa City to spend as much time out of their shelter room as possible before the 9 p.m. curfew. They park across the street from the shelter where they know cars don’t often get towed.
Four twin beds line the walls of the Shelter House room where the seven-member family stays. Clothing and blankets are stacked almost to the ceiling on utility shelves on the back wall. Furnishings are otherwise sparse, and the room is tidy. The kids do their homework in the room or in the small, shared sitting area on Shelter House’s second floor.
Bedtimes are staggered, with the younger three nodding off earlier than Daviyae and Javon, who usually have their cellphone lights shining in the dark before they fall asleep.
When their 45-day stay at Shelter House runs out, the Johnson family may be headed back to a relative’s house to stay. But Iesha said she knows relatives’ compassion is spreading thin. They don’t understand why the family hasn’t yet found a stable home, a source of constant stress for Iesha.
“That worry every night goes ‘OK, what are we going to do next?’ A lot of them (relatives) helped, but say, ‘What’s going on here? You keep doing this and doing this?’ ” Iesha said. “They hear, but they’re not understanding.”
“With this many children and her (Iesha) dealing with what she’s dealing with, they can’t relate to our situation,” Tommie agreed. “I never wrapped my head around it either.”
The kids understand — Simone said she sees how much her parents worry.
“It makes me think that my dad is a great dad and that my mom is a wonderful woman,” she said. “She works hard to take care of me, and my dad works hard every day to get money to pay for a house. And I’m proud.”
‘The most stabilizing thing ... is a home’
Case management is key for families like the Johnsons, said Rachel Lehmann, a housing case manager at Shelter House. The first goal is to get a family stable housing that fits their needs and is affordable long term.
For the next six to nine months, Lehmann said, Shelter House staffers teach families budgeting and address the issues that played into the onset of homelessness.
“When you have a home, inside of that home is your family,” Lehmann said. “When you’re in a shelter, there’s a lot of people. Trying to maintain that routine and consistency and structure, for kids, is so important ... the most stabilizing thing any person can have, young and old, is a home.
“Moving forward, it’s really hard to do that without a place to lay your head.”
And Lehmann said she wishes everyone across the state understood how close they could come to homelessness.
“When you have very little financial resources, a small problem becomes a big one very quickly, such as a medical issue or high day-care costs,” Lehmann said. “It’s really hard to pinpoint what is the cause. Every family and every situation is so unique.”
A network of resources — from not-for-profits and formal shelters to community groups and church programs — is important for providing needs such as clothing and food so a family can allocate money to housing payments, Lehmann said.
The Iowa City Catholic Worker House provides some of those services, co-founder Goodner said. Besides the Johnson family’s 90-day stay there, they still come in on weekends for meals when other organizations are closed.
The house’s six beds are always full, Goodner said. Besides hot meals and available beds, the organization has a food pantry, hygiene kits and household supplies. It also works with guests to save money during a stay.
“People in this community would be shocked,” Goodner said, “if they knew how many homeless children there actually are out there living on our city’s streets every night.”
The best and worst states for child homelessness might not be what you expect. The National Center on Family Homelessness created this ranking based on 2013 data. The ranking is a composite score based on four metrics: the extent of child homelessness (adjusted for state population); child well-being; the risk for child homelessness and state policy and planning efforts. Find the full report here (PDF).
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