At homeless shelters, a welcome scramble for the new school year

“You have community washing rooms. And there could be a mom with three kids,” said Constance Collins, president and founder of the nonprofit organization. “She’s not going to have time to wash every night. If you get one or two uniforms, that doesn’t really work.”

A new school year strains budgets throughout Miami-Dade, where one in five households lives in poverty. But Miami-Dade homeless shelters face unique challenges as they wrap up another back-to-school drill with more than 900 children as residents.

Efforts to send a child to his or her original school far from a shelter can be complicated by long county bus rides for children who may too young to be on their own. Families living in hotels as they await a slot in a backlogged shelter system face even more obstacles in providing their children with clean uniforms and a quiet place for homework.

Backpack drives generally bring shelters a surplus of supplies by September, but most donors overlook the socks, underwear and other must-haves for parents of growing children. Shoes tend to be the most expensive item on the shelters’ lists, but also one of the most important.

“For back-to-school, kids don’t want hand-me-down shoes,” said Elizabeth Von Werne, vice president of program services at Chapman Partnership, the leading recipient of Miami-Dade’s homeless-aid dollars. “Everyone else is walking back into school with brand-new shoes. They want to fit in.”

The latest homeless count in January showed 934 homeless people below the age of 18 in Miami-Dade’s homeless-shelter network. That’s roughly 35 percent of the county’s total count of 4,152 homeless people identified in the survey.

The board that oversees the county restaurant tax that funds homeless programs gives priority to families, meaning none should be left on the street once they call the county hot line. But with shelters clogged with waiting lists, a large number of families end up living in cheap hotels and motels while they await an opening in a shelter. The January count showed 1,400 homeless adults and children housed in hotels and motels.

Homeless children are such a presence in Miami-Dade that the school system has an office dedicated to that subset of students. Called Project Upstart, it counted nearly 2,900 homeless students that qualified in March. Of those, 675 lived in shelters and 183 in hotels. Under the category “cars and parks, etc.,” Upstart’s count listed 117 students.

“Every year, our numbers go up. And we know we’re not capturing all of them,” said Raquel Regalado, a school board member and candidate for Miami-Dade mayor. “Drive up to any Walmart at night and look at the parking lot. You will see families living in their cars.”

While the federal government considers a child homeless if he or she has no place but a shelter to live, the school system also includes families staying with friends and relatives. Known as “doubling up,” it can have a family living on the verge of homelessness as they bounce from host to host.

“I spoke to a woman the other day who told me over the phone she was homeless. Yet she was with her sister,” said Bobbie Ibarra, director of the Miami Coalition for the Homeless. “There were too many people in the home, and her sister gave her a definitive time [to leave]. She had issues with her children.”

Project Upstart solicits donations and grants for the free uniforms that Lotus and other shelters rely on each year. It purchases prom tickets and dresses for homeless high school students and manages a free store of donated items reserved for homeless families.

“Those donors from Miami Beach, my goodness. There’s Chanel. There’s Gucci. There’s Jimmy Choo. Students can come and take what they want,” said Debra Albo-Steiger, head of Project Upstart. “I don’t want a homeless student to stand out.”

One of the program’s most complicated tasks is arranging transportation for homeless students. Federal law requires school systems to try to keep children in their original neighborhood school, rather than whichever school is closest to the shelter or hotel room where they’re being housed. When a school bus route can’t deliver the child, Miami-Dade schools provides free passes to the county transit system.

For younger children, the school system provides two passes: one for the student and one for the parent. Case workers said some middle schoolers can navigate the county transit system fine on their way to a home school, leaving a parent free to head for work. More often, the longer trip back to a familiar school is deemed too daunting.

“It’s a tough call,” Von Werne said. “Maybe mom has to get to work. But she’s also not comfortable sending a child across town on a county bus.”

Chapman runs a shelter in Miami and one in Homestead, and combined they house about 115 school-age children. Only 16 are in high school. Another 76 live in hotels and motels while awaiting a slot in a Chapman facility. The back-to-school season can be trying even once families leave Chapman for something more permanent.

Nadege Cius, 31, moved into Chapman’s Miami facility from Palm Beach County a few weeks ago. A married mother of six, Cius faced a daunting back-to-school list. Two of her children have special needs (autism and a speech impediment). Her 13-year-old daughter wasn’t thrilled with leaving her friends back in Palm Beach County, where they lived before being evicted amid a cash squeeze.

At Chapman’s Miami compound, the family lives steps from a wing of services that include a health center, housing counselors and job-placement aides. A case worker arranged school tours for Cius and meetings with school counselors specializing in the special-needs programs her two sons will utilize once classes begin Monday. Each year, a local barbershop offers free back-to-school haircuts.

“Thank God for Chapman,” Cius said. With her children getting ready for school, Cius said she’s focusing on three things this fall. “I have to fix my credit. I have to go back to school. And I have to make sure my kids are happy.”

Chapman’s in-house daycare and youth program already has her daughter meeting new classmates. Workers there greet school buses each day to guide the children to the shelter’s after-school program. Thursday was the big back-to-school event, where students received their uniforms and backpacks with crayons, markers, pencils, notebooks and other back-to-school staples.

“Mechanical pencils — they’re the thing now,” said Nichole Burke, an assistant teacher at the program, called the Family Resource Center. “And highlighters. They love highlighters.”

Burke said all of the supplies were donated, part of Chapman’s back-to-school drive. Like Thanksgiving and Christmas, the start of school marks a high point for fundraising at shelters. Case workers count on a surplus from August to carry them through the year, as they face a string of new arrivals in the fall, winter and spring — often with children attending a new school and needing a full set of supplies and uniforms.

Even with the logistical challenges, a new school year also eases some of the strain in homeless shelters. Parents have more time for work or to meet with social workers and potential employers. School also means a return to the mainstream for homeless children.

“When you watch that child step onto a school bus, you know that life has normalized,” said Collins, who founded Lotus House in 2004. “They’re like every other child. It’s a beautiful thing.”