By Todd Cohen
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Early in 1989, seeing some children playing in a downtown Charlotte cemetery, a group of women who worked nearby asked them why they were not in school.
The children said they were not allowed to go to school because they were living in a shelter with their mother.
The women, in turn, visited school officials and then First Presbyterian Church, securing contributions, respectively, of a teacher and a Sunday classroom it could use for homeless children.
That marked the birth of A Child’s Place, a nonprofit that today provides services for 2,200 homeless children in elementary or middle schools, or 45 percent of the more than 4,900 enrolled children the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools have identified as homeless.
That official count does not include an estimated 1,700 children too young to be in school and an estimated 1,500 middle school and high school students believed to be homeless and who are “skilled at hiding what is their most guarded secret,” says Annabelle Suddreth, executive director of A Child’s Place.
“Homelessness has a devastating effect on children,” she says. “They are more likely to be hungry, sick, fall behind in school, and worry. Most of the kids we work with feel like their housing crisis is somehow their fault. We work to erase the impact of homelessness on children and their education.”
Operating with an annual budget of $2.1 million, a staff of 35 people and 500 volunteers who give an hour a week of time each, A Child’s Place provides a range of services, including providing school supplies. school uniforms and snacks for the evening; helping to fulfill students’ medical and dental needs; and working with roughly 150 government, nonprofit, faith and for-profit partners that help provide housing, food, employment and other services for family members.
Charlotte Family Housing, for example, works with families on a range of housing options, such as providing emergency shelter; a two-year program to get people moved into housing; and transitional housing.
And Elevation Church provides donations that fund a social worker in the schools to work with children, as well as hundreds of volunteers who donate an hour a week to serve as a lunch buddy or tutor a student, while other church members provide a snack, school uniform, school supplies or toiletry items.
The bulk of the annual budget at A Child’s Place pays for 10 social-work teams that work directly with students on a daily and weekly basis in 33 schools with high incidence of homelessness.
From the moment they meet students when their buses arrive at school in the morning, members of those teams make sure any problems or worries the students may have are addressed, while also providing monthly education programs for parents.
A Child’s Place also provides an eight-week summer camp that serves 150 children.
Depending on its makeup, each team costs from $100,000 to $110,000, and the investment is producing results, Suddreth says.
While only 64 percent of homeless children nationally are promoted and only 48 percent read at or above grade level, 97 percent of children served by A Child’s Place are promoted and 81 percent read at or above grade level.
“The schools’ responsibility is education,” Suddreth says. “We take the responsibility to eliminate all the barriers to getting that child in school and learning.”