Making education a priority for homeless students in Minneapolis

No home sweet home
The number of homeless children is on the rise in Minnesota and across the country.
Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Some 10-year-old girls dream of hot pink iPods. Others have their hearts set on the latest Hannah Montana DVD.

Then there's Tanysha Dempsey.

"Well, it's a certain toy that I've wanted. But if I can't get it, I can't get upset about it, because then my (mom) might not have enough money for it and sometimes when (she) does have enough money and is trying to save, I have to understand that we need a house."

"It hurts my feelings when people talk about me living in a shelter and they don't. Then once everyone finds out, they're going to laugh about it."

For the past four months, Tanysha has been living in a Minneapolis homeless shelter with her mother and 4-year-old sister.

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"I didn't really like moving here because I don't like waking up every day around different people. But we have our own beds, so that's what I'm happy about," said Tanysha. "At least we have somewhere to sleep, and something that covers us from rain and stuff. And we get to change clothes everyday and wear clean stuff."

Still, the fifth-grader wishes she didn't have to go through a metal detector just to get into the shelter's lobby.

"If you're in a home, you can just walk in," she said. "It's just that they don't trust us, that's how I feel."

Tanysha's mom, Edwina Lucas, has worked at grocery stores and fast food restaurants. She's done manual labor. And she's been a personal care attendant. But Lucas, 33, has always struggled to keep up with rent.

After bouncing from relatives' couches to friends' floors, Lucas and her daughters landed at the People Serving People shelter, which is home, at least temporarily, for about 350 Minnesotans.

"I cry. It's a stressing and depressing situation to be in," Lucas said.

It seems the only thing that makes her smile these days is talking about Tanysha's education.

Margo Hurrle
Margo Hurrle is the shelter office coordinator for Minneapolis Public Schools. It's her job to help homeless kids stay in school. Her days are filled with phone calls -- making her an expert at fielding calls on two phones at once.
MPR Photo/Nikki Tundel

"Oh, I am so proud and honored to have her as my daughter. She has done beautiful."

"I think I do good on my tests," Tanysha said. "And I get good scores." Tanysha hates to miss school. But getting to class can be a challenge when you don't have a stable place to live.

That's where Margo Hurrle comes in.

It's Hurrle's job to reach out to homeless families in Hennepin County, and then do whatever it takes to keep their kids in school.

"The parents are overwhelmed. 'Where am I going to sleep tonight?' And once they get that, (they ask) 'Where am I going to sleep tomorrow, and next week and next month?'" Hurrle said. "They have so many things on their mind that if we can relieve them of this small piece of 'How do I get my kid to and from school,' that's the best."

Technically, Hurrle is the shelter office coordinator for Minneapolis Public Schools. But kids refer to her as "the school lady," as in the lady who's always asking them how school's going.

Her office is located right inside the People Serving People shelter. Students know they can always stop by if they need pencils or folders or even a new backpack.

Over Hurrle's desk is a bulletin board covered with school pictures -- the smiling faces of children who know what it's like to sleep under a freeway overpass, children who've seen everything they've ever owned disappear in a house fire, children who've never had a birthday cake because their parents could never afford one.

Getting to school
Most children don't want their classmates to know they're homeless. For that reason, school bus drivers try to make homeless shelters the first stops in the morning and the last stops in the afternoon. That way, other kids won't see homeless children board the bus in front of the shelter.
Photo: Barry & Smith

Hurrle's position was born out of the 1987 McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act. The law requires schools to identify homeless students and offer them services and support. It also gives those students the right to attend the school where they started the year, even if they move to a shelter in another community.

"The first year I worked was 1991, and we found 50 homeless students," Hurrle said.

This year she's seen more than 5,000 homeless students, which means she's often using two phones at once to just make sure all the kids are taken care of.

The Minneapolis school district estimates that one out of every six of its students will experience homelessness this year.

"There used to be a time, years ago, where schools would say kids aren't homeless. Old people are homeless, chronic alcoholics, Vietnam vets. Kids aren't homeless," Hurrle said. "Now the schools are well aware of the fact that kids are homeless."

Hurrle keeps track of students in 17 different city shelters. And she visits a few of them each night.

"I'm checking in with all new families that moved in, or some families you just worry about, who were scared, who just need to see a friendly face every now and again," she said.

It's not uncommon for Hurrle to meet parents who are afraid to send their kids to school. They worry their children will be taken away if the people learn they've lost their homes.

Hurrle not only calms their fears, but also makes sure their children have everything they need to be normal school kids -- from spiral-ringed notebooks to money for field trips.

"They are small things, except they're not to the child you are dealing with. The phy ed teacher is looking at them every day saying, 'I told you to bring gym shoes or you won't pass this class.' The student, not having the money or the knowledge of where to get gym shoes, never says anything," said Hurrle.

Most kids are too embarrassed to tell their teachers they're homeless, and don't want to make their parents feel bad by asking for gym shoes they know they can't afford. The way they see it, the best option is to take the scolding and then sit in the corner while the other kids, the ones with the right gym shoes, play floor hockey or kickball.

"McKinney-Vento says that kids who are homeless, you can't put barriers up for them going to school," said Hurrle. "And one of those barriers might be if you're in a school that has uniforms. They don't have to have a uniform to attend. But what if they're the only kid in their classroom with no uniform, and all the other kids are saying, 'Hey, how come Donny doesn't have to wear a uniform and we do?' You don't tell them it's because Donny is homeless. So Donny feels miserable either way. So we have to be able to get them the things they need."

Hurrle can get students the right uniforms and gym shoes.

She can also have a school bus pick up kids at the domestic violence shelter, rather than at the home they fled with their mother the night before.

She can also make sure teachers keep an eye out for signs of homelessness -- like children who hoard food because they fear they won't have any down the road.

What she can't seem to do is protect kids like Tanysha Dempsey from the reality of being homeless.

"It hurts my feelings when people talk about me living in a shelter and they don't," Tanysha said. "And then once everyone finds out, they're going to laugh about it. But when they move in the shelter, then they're going to think about what they did wrong. And then they might come to somebody and say that they're sorry for what they said."

Margo Hurrle knows it's not easy to be homeless. But she's always reminding students like Tanysha that things can get better.

"I have kids come back and tell me they just graduated from college or just received a scholarship to go to college. So they're wonderful success stories," Hurrle said.

Tansysha loves hearing those stories.

"I want to go to college. I want to get a good education so we can have enough money to move into a house, and we don't have to be in a shelter. And if that doesn't come true, we got to keep praying and wishing and it will."

Tanysha dreams of the day she can decorate her own bedroom. But she makes it clear she won't be having any Hannah Montana merchandise cluttering up the place. Tanysha says she's more of a "That's So Raven" kind of girl.