WASHINGTON – Alexis Mack wanted to go to school in Dundalk, where she landed with her mother and sister last summer after they escaped an abusive situation in their home in New York.
But Alexis, then 15, didn’t know where the school was or when summer vacation ended. She couldn’t afford school supplies and the bus didn’t run past the shelter where they were living at the time.
The school year was a week old when Alexis finally enrolled in 10th grade at Dundalk High School, with the help of counselors at the Family Crisis Center. Someone there showed her how to make the 25-minute walk to school and she was given school supplies and vouchers to buy clothes from Sears.
She was just one of more than 5,700 homeless Maryland children who got help from eight federally funded homeless education programs in the state. But advocates say there are many more students who are not getting the assistance they need.
So Alexis joined other homeless children, advocates and elected officials in Washington on Wednesday to support a bill that would almost double funding, to $50 million annually, for the McKinney Education for Homeless Children and Youth Act.
“We just want homeless children to be treated like every other child and be given the same opportunities and not be at a significant disadvantage simply because they don’t have a place to call home,” said Robert V. Hess, president of Center for Poverty Solutions in Baltimore.
Last year, Congress budgeted $28.8 million for the program. Maryland received $331,440 in fiscal 1998 for programs in Baltimore City and Baltimore, Montgomery, Prince George’s, Calvert, Howard, Wicomico and Charles/St. Mary’s counties.
Maryland advocates said they need more money to help identify and serve children who may qualify, even though they do not live in a homeless shelter.
“Many people don’t want to be identified as homeless,” said Jill Moss Greenberg, coordinator for Baltimore County’s Homeless Education program. “We can only provide services to those we know about.”
Even when a child is asked, Hess said, he or she may not admit to being homeless.
“One of the questions you ask a child when they enroll in school is generally not, `Are you homeless?'” Hess said. “So people are going to fall through the cracks that way.”
The Baltimore County program began a coordinated inter-agency approach to helping homeless families about four years ago. Greenberg said it solved what had been “a really fragmented approach that involved all the key players that help children and families.”
“We tap whatever sources are out there,” she said. Besides school services for children, the county’s program helps families with nutrition, refers children for health or mental health services and helps parents get involved in adult education, among other services.
The county program operates on $50,000 in federal funds it was allotted by the state, Greenberg said. It also gets private support from teachers and school staffers who support school-supply drives, casserole-baking parties for shelter residents and vouchers that let homeless students buy personal items of clothing.
Alexis, who moved out of the shelter in March with her mother and 9-year- old sister, has skipped 11th grade and expects to graduate in May. She is looking at colleges, where she hopes to study English and psychology. Her mother is pursuing a GED and works as a cashier at Rite Aid.
“My mother always told me there can be no situation worse than this and we’ve survived,” Alexis said Wednesday.