Josephine Peterson: Tacoma homeless shelter has new role in COVID-19 pandemic: Helping to educate kids

Returning to school is tricky for every family this year.

For families living in a shelter with limited Wi-Fi, the challenges can feel insurmountable.

“My biggest fear is that my daughter is going to fall through the cracks and not get the education she needs,” Felicia Drew said. “It’s touch and go. I don’t know what will happen.”

Drew and her 10-year-old daughter, Laurise Drew, are staying at the Tacoma Rescue Missions’ Adams Street Family Campus.

Laurise attends fifth grade at Tacoma School District’s Bryant Montessori School. She is in an Individualized Education Program (IEP) focused on English and math.

Her mother is concerned she won’t receive the specialized education she needs. At the end of the prior school year, Felicia said, they struggled with the laptop they were given, and class was generalized for all.

Felicia is meeting with her daughter’s IEP teacher to create a plan for specialized learning.

“I’m a single parent. I can’t be everywhere all the time, so I really have to reach out to my community to ask for help,” the mother said. “I never wanted to raise her in this environment during a plague.”

Tacoma Rescue Mission executive director Duke Paulson said homeless service providers have had a challenging few months of trying to avoid a COVID-19 outbreak, shelter folks while practicing social distancing and ensure meals are prepared and “to-go.”

“There’s so many crises right now. There’s ones on the horizon that aren’t even thought of. We’re always reacting to something,” he said.

Paulson didn’t realize until a few weeks prior to school starting that the Adams Street Family Campus would become an ad hoc school. Traditionally, the emergency shelter has focused on providing immediate needs like food, shelter and reducing the barriers that cause homelessness.

The shelter estimates between 60 to 70 school-aged children are residing at the campus.

Becoming a school

Director of the family campus, Allison Powell, said there are some challenges, but they are slowly working on making improvements.

Tacoma Rescue Mission is trying to find a way to ensure internet access. Currently, the family campus has Wi-Fi only strong enough for staff, and it does not extend into rooms.

Paulson is trying to find a solution.

Drew said she has had to bend some of her hard rules. Laurise was not supposed to get a phone until her 13th birthday, but the coronavirus pandemic meant Felicia had to relent so Laurise could attend school.

The phone provides a hotspot for Laursie to be able to connect her computer to the internet.

“It’s been working so far, but there is a limit on how much it has,” Felicia said.

Parents cannot leave their child alone all day, which hurts the ability of some people to keep or search for jobs, Paulson said.

“People just can’t leave. We can’t have a liability of 60 to 70 kids being alone,” he said.

Paulson is trying to hire recently retired teachers to help the dozens of children at the emergency shelter.

“We are trying to create additional support, because it’s something that we feel is the right thing to do to help children,” he said. “They shouldn’t be disadvantaged any more than they already are.”

For the first week, Felicia took time off to get Laurise settled. Now, she has to return to work as an essential worker at a grocery store, and she has to drop off Laurise at a family member.

“I can’t leave her here alone ever. Normally, I would maybe go to the grocery store and be back 30 minutes later, but I can’t do that here,” Felicia said. “I really have to depend on my community.”

The emergency shelter is converting its after-school youth program buildings into classrooms, rather than children remaining in their apartment-style rooms. They are purchasing desks, plexiglass, computers and hotspots to create a socially distant classroom.

More will be spent on breakfast and lunch than anticipated, Powell said. Before the pandemic, children would receive those meals at school.

While focusing on helping students attend school remotely, the shelter is still trying to find permanent homes for the families. This summer, Paulson said the family campus has moved out an average of about 10 families a month.

“Throughout this whole pandemic, we never shut down. So we’re going to keep serving,” Paulson said. “People are losing jobs, and we’re still managing to help people launch out of the shelter successfully, which is awesome, but a challenge.”

Community support

The Tacoma Rescue Mission is looking for community partners to help provide child care and after-school programs.

Finding an organization to coordinate with several school districts has been another difficult step. Many nonprofits and community organizations are trying to figure out how to navigate the pandemic themselves, Paulson said.

“We’re trying to hear what our options are, but in the meantime, we’re doing the best we can do,” he said.

The three largest Pierce County school districts are providing additional support to children experiencing homelessness.

The Tacoma School District reported on Aug. 27 that 1,742 homeless students are enrolled. Spokesperson Dan Voelpel said there are additional laptops available to homeless students in grade K-5.

The Bethel School District counted 665 homeless students. The district is providing hotspots to families without internet access.

The Puyallup School District has about 300 students considered homeless. Spokesperson Sarah Gillispie said the district is planning to bring in students for additional support.

In the meantime, the Drews will continue to “roll with the punches.” Felicia will continue to rely on her family to tend to Laurise while she works, and plans to continue remote learning until there is more of assurance that Laurise will not be infected.

Powell said the shelter is staying flexible.

“We’re all just figuring this out at the same time, but they’re looking to us to support them, and so we need to do that,” she said.

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