When children spend days and nights fearing for their safety, watching the adults they love being angry and violent, and seeing the police arrive to arrest and remove people, their bodies are flooded with hormones and chemicals.
This chemical response was meant to spur us to escape the attack of a bear or a tiger. But when these chemicals are created frequently and repeatedly, day after stress-filled day, as they are for homeless children, they create pathways in the brain for a survival response — a response that research has shown interferes greatly with the ability to learn, read and do math. Homeless children live in a constant state of fear and anxiety.
I knew this before the research confirmed it, because I spent many years as an elementary school counselor in the Eugene, Bethel and Fern Ridge school districts.
On Monday mornings, especially during the first hour of school, teachers sent to my office children who had arrived crying, whose dad got arrested last night, whose family had lost their home and was sleeping in a car, or whose time in the shelter had run out and they had to move (again). Parents sent children to school who had arrived angry, and so the children behaved in disruptive ways.
Soon it was clear to me as the school counselor that I needed to provide a small group at the beginning of every school day, because these students weren’t able to learn until someone (in this case others who understood) took time to listen to their fear, pain and loss.
Teachers wanted to have the time to listen — but with 29 other students, how could they?
I learned a lot about homelessness from these children. I learned it is very scary to not know where you will sleep that night or the next night. I learned that the only food some children ate was the food they received at school. I learned that most children felt great responsibility to help their families solve their problems. I learned they felt deep sadness at the loss of pets, possessions, old friends and places they had loved and had to leave. I learned they had no way to predict what might happen next in their lives.
I learned they greatly feared being removed from their parents. Every unhoused child I ever worked with desperately wanted to remain with his or her family. They all knew other children who’d been taken and now had foster care families.
I learned that these children absorbed and were traumatized by the levels of stress their parents experienced. I watched their lives being disrupted by being moved from school to school, depending on where their family could temporarily live next.
These children were not able to benefit from their educations. They couldn’t learn. They were in a constant state of stress and anxiety, affecting both their bodies and their minds.
If we want to increase high school graduation rates and reduce crime and addiction rates, if we want to live in a civil society, if we want safer, kinder, more loving communities of people who will work together to solve huge problems of global economic disaster and climate change, we need everyone in!
In the 2010-11 school year, Lane County had a total of 2,437 homeless students. In the city of Eugene there were 771 homeless students, and in Springfield 562 homeless kids attended schools.
We cannot afford to leave children behind. We cannot afford to leave them uneducated or unhoused.
What if there were an “Opportunity Village” near the school where children and their families could spend the year living in a small residence? What if this “village” were safe, and children knew that when adults were affected by substances or mental health issues that other competent adults would meet their needs and help them?
Imagine, in the stability and safety of this village, that parental stress levels lowered and children could relax their neurological systems. They would be free from stress hormones, and they would be available to learn what they need to learn to be participating citizens of our democracy.
The ounce of prevention afforded to children who need safe, stable housing would be repaid to the entire society many pounds over.
Would it really be too difficult to allow unhoused families to live in dignified, safe communities? Would it be impossible to look at what Portland and other cities have successfully done to accommodate all their citizens? Could all those with the power and the resources really understand what these people need? Could we then accomplish it?
I believe we can do this! We can choose to work together and accomplish it.
It is the right thing to do for children, families, schools and our community. It is social justice, and it’s the moral thing to do.
How will you help?
Debra McGee of Eugene is a retired school counselor.