Gavin Shelton does not know he is homeless; his father has kept that from him.
He is 8 years old with dark hair, a big smile, ambition. When asked for his life plan, he grinned. “WWE wrestler,” he said. “Or NASCAR.”
He went to sleep this past week in a clean, neat room at the Salvation Army shelter downtown, unaware that he and his father came close to living on the street. It was sheer luck that the Salvation Army had a room open when his father called Dec. 27.
Gavin has no idea that he has helped Wichita schools set what district officials call a disturbing record.
Last year, social workers and teachers found a record 1,733 homeless children in Wichita schools.
By Friday, the total for this year reached a new high – 1,829, including 14 identified on Thursday alone.
Educators who work with the families say many of the parents want to work and are neither lazy nor unintelligent.
“Many of these families have jobs,” said Cynthia Martinez, the school district’s liaison for homeless students. “We’re starting for the first time to see families where the parents used to work for Hawker, or the aeronautical companies, people who used to have good jobs but have now lost everything.”
Embarrassed to admit
Gavin’s father, Ryan Shelton, 34, cries sometimes at the shelter, and hides the tears. Gavin caught his father looking depressed one day. He hugged him.
“We’ll be all right,” the boy said.
Gavin eats at the Salvation Army now, but many homeless children are chronically hungry outside of school. Most of them lack toothbrushes, soap, shampoo, coats, toilet paper, toys, eyeglasses. Many are too embarrassed to admit they live homeless, and social workers and teachers coax it out of them in interviews, or do detective work. Educators identified five children living in cars last year.
Many, like Gavin, show up, as Gavin showed up at Caldwell Elementary School last month, with no possessions but the clothing they wore to school.
Homeless children come from all backgrounds, Martinez said. Nearly 900 attend elementary schools.
Last year, when the United Way of the Great Plains did its annual count of homeless adults and children in Wichita, it found 555 homeless adults and children.
If the school district number of 1,829 homeless children seems out of line, it’s because two federal departments categorize homelessness two different ways.
United Way does its count using the federal Housing and Urban Development definitions of homelessness: If you’re on the streets or in shelters, you are homeless.
But the U.S. Department of Education says anyone “doubling up” or living with another family is also homeless. More than 1,300 of the children identified as homeless in Wichita schools are living doubled up, Martinez said.
One of Wichita’s authorities on homeless people is Sandy Swank, director of housing and homeless services for Interfaith Ministries. Swank has spent 23 years on the street, rescued children, and stood toe-to-toe with street drunks, protecting other homeless people from their anger, calling the cops if necessary.
“There are just no jobs here,” she said last week. “I try to light a fire under them, tell them to keep trying. But … a lot of them want to work, but all they do is go up and down streets applying at places and not finding anything. And businesses make them go online now to apply, and they can’t do that.”
Swank said the school district count is a better indication than the HUD count of the size of Sedgwick County’s homeless population, which she estimates includes 2,000 to 3,000 adults and children.
The unemployment rate for the metropolitan area is a relatively low 6 percent, according to the Kansas Department of Labor.
But that number does not show what happened to low-paid workers since the recession started, Swank said.
When the aircraft and other companies laid off people, Swank said, some of those workers took jobs at lower wages. There was a domino effect, in which people with lower qualifications had to settle for lower pay. So people at the lowest end found themselves jobless, or making so little at part-time work that they’ve ended up poor. Many homeless people in Wichita today want to work and have jobs, Swank said.
“We encounter people all the time who lost their homes, or who got behind on their utilities and payments,” Swank said. “They ended up owing so much, they lose everything.”
She said children in doubled-up families live with not only hunger but also anxiety, not knowing where or even whether they might find a roof. “They live with the fact that they can be evicted at a moment’s notice,” she said. These families move, accepting shelter from whomever will give it. Family takes them in; family often turns them out.
These children are as emotionally unsettled and short of necessities as any other homeless kids, Martinez, the school district’s liaison, said.
Many of these children get into disciplinary trouble, agitated from anxiety. “I show up at every disciplinary hearing to speak up on behalf of those kids,” she said.
But many homeless children do their school work with great resolve. And though most love their parents, some get angry.
Last year the district graduated 40 homeless seniors, including one who asked Martinez to take his photograph after he put on his cap and gown.
She asked what he planned to do with the photo.
He said he planned to stick a printed copy under the windshield wiper of his father’s car, with a note:
“I did it without you.”
Nearly 9,000 kids statewide
Statewide, using the same Department of Education criteria used in Wichita, educators in 128 Kansas public school districts found 8,911 homeless children in the state last year, said Tate Toedman, state coordinator of education for homeless children and youth.
Toedman said he is sure Kansas will set another record when numbers are compiled after the school year ends. “Unfortunately we will easily surpass 9,000 homeless children in Kansas,” he said.
He echoed what Martinez said: Many homeless people these days have low-wage jobs. Many once had good jobs and owned homes.
He said people who lost jobs years ago are finally losing homes in foreclosure. “It takes a while to lose a home,” he said.
Another reason some homeless children are being discovered now, though they’ve been homeless a long time, is family pride. “But now their need is so great they are coming forward,” he said.
He said nine of the 128 school districts in Kansas, including Wichita, get some government grant money to help homeless children, but most districts do not. Those districts find either local school money or local donors. Or teachers dig into their own pockets.
“Donations are the most important thing anyone can give,” Toedman said.
He said he still encounters a public misconception about homeless people.
“Most people think of the image of the older man living under a bridge,” he said.
“The truth is, the biggest population number are children under age 5.”
Schools help out
Daniel Ludlow is one of those parents Martinez mentioned who wants to work.
He came to Wichita from Pennsylvania in June because he’d been hired for a maintenance job. The job disappeared before he arrived. He works a maintenance job at Wichita State University now, having found it by applying for hundreds of jobs in town. But he and his family spent several months homeless, including a few weeks living in a motel on South Broadway. “You hear a lot of sirens at night there,” said his wife, Shannon Davis-Ludlow. Their car broke down for a while.
The school district staff not only kept her children in school but gave them everything from shampoo to job tips to legwork helping them track down places to live.
“They kept us from having to live on the streets, sleeping in our car,” Davis-Ludlow said. Teachers at Linwood Elementary School saved the family from despair, she said.
Though the family is not homeless anymore, Michelle Baker, the honors choir teacher at Linwood Elementary, picks up her 9-year-old daughter Angel and drives her to school so Angel can sing in the choir. “An amazing woman,” Davis-Ludlow said. “She’s great.”
Angel cried in class a couple of times from the stress of the “couch surfing,” moving from house to house, sheltering with a series of family and friends. The teachers surrounded her with affection, she said.
Coats for kids
On Monday after the temperature dipped to the day’s low of 24 degrees, the social worker at Enterprise Elementary School, Cathy Dugan, found two homeless children at the school who had no coats.
Dugan’s job in helping children gets complicated sometimes; some children are too embarrassed to admit to her they are homeless, or half-starved, or shivering. She reported the children’s situation to Martinez.
Martinez began helping homeless children in the district in the 2004-05 school year, when she and others identified 308 homeless children in Wichita schools.
District staff have broken the record for the number of homeless children counted every year after that. They start looking for homeless children as soon as school convenes in August and keep a count, starting from zero.
This past week, after they reached 1,829, Martinez said the worst thing was not that they’d set another record but that they’d surpassed last year’s record as early as January — with four months of school to go.
Martinez spends hours every school year, including on weekends, speaking at churches or any place that will have her, asking for help. With donations, she’s able to give most of the children toothbrushes, toiletries and other items.
The family Dugan met at Enterprise on Monday had come to Wichita from Louisiana, where they had not needed coats. They found no work here, and now they were broke, homeless and cold.
‘He deserves better’
Gavin Shelton, the 8-year-old at the Salvation Army shelter, has a wide smile and an arm untrained for football; he throws wobbly spirals to his father after the bus brings him home from Caldwell Elementary.
Gavin’s father, Ryan, said he cries sometimes because he put his son in a tough spot, in part with bad decisions. He told Gavin the room at the Salvation Army is a place they are staying for a while, without explaining that it’s a homeless shelter.
He’s had a couple of DUIs, he said. He used to do some electrical work; he fought with his fiancee and had to leave her home in Wichita and the three children he’d fathered with her. He thought he had a job lined up in Nebraska, and took Gavin with him in mid-December, but another woman who he thought would take them in changed her mind. He came back to Wichita on a bus with Gavin on Dec. 27.
For two hours outside the bus station, he and Gavin huddled under a blanket. He began calling shelters until the Salvation Army told him they were nearly always full and that it was sheer luck they had a room.
Shelton is grateful to educators at Caldwell, who welcomed Gavin back when they came home. He said his son is great at math and always does his homework. And he said that no matter his mistakes, his son is blameless.
“My son is a good kid,” Shelton said. “He deserves better.”