Community Response

The Student Homelessness Initiative Partnership of Frederick County Provides Support to Youth in Need

By Christina L. Lyons | Photography by Turner Photography Studio | Posted on 08.12.16 – Feature, People & Places

Abbey couldn’t hold back the tears as she made her way through the hallway between classes at Tuscarora High School. The 18-year-old was tired, stressed and emotionally exhausted, having started her senior year sleeping most nights in the SUV she had purchased from waiting tables. Friends occasionally stayed the night with her.

During much of the previous two years, Abbey (whose name has been changed to protect her identity) had bounced around friends’ and families’ homes, something social workers and educators call “couch surfing.” She was used to the migratory living pattern; she had shuffled among group homes and relatives’ houses around the region while growing up, she says. When she was 13, however, she had hoped that lifestyle was ending when Social Services granted her wish to live with her mother again. Her mother had long struggled with addiction, but was then sober. Abbey’s older sister moved in, too.

Her mother’s painkiller addiction soon resumed, however. A series of boyfriends cycled through the house, men who made Abbey feel unsafe. When Abbey was a sophomore in high school, her sister began having emotional outbursts and hurting her physically, and Abbey decided she had to get out. That’s when she began couch surfing. Occasionally she would return home, but she never stayed long before she left again or her mother inexplicably threw her out.

She left for good at the start of her senior year in 2014, and her dad— long estranged from her— emancipated her to avoid paying child support, she says. By then, she knew none of her relatives or friends could offer her stability, so she opted for her car.

Few of her classmates, and even fewer teachers, knew about her situation. But it was obvious even to Abbey that she was hanging with the wrong kids at school—the “partying crowd”—and making the wrong choices, not focusing on school and being unable to get on the right track. She was eager to talk when Elizabeth Forbes, a school counselor, invited Abbey into her office after seeing her crying in the hallway. Forbes asked her a few questions then talked to her about resources for the homeless.

“I didn’t really think I was homeless,” Abbey says. “I thought I had a home but I was just not comfortable being there. The counselor really convinced me I was. She explained I was homeless because I did not have a place to put my head at night.”

The counselor told Abbey about a program called the Student Homelessness Initiative Partnership of Frederick County, known as SHIP, which seeks to provide short-term help for homeless students and, in some situations, their families, too. With Abbey’s consent, Forbes put her in touch with the organization’s co-founder and operations director, MaryLynne Hinde.

“She made me feel really comfortable,” Abbey says of Hinde. “It’s not something you’re proud of—being homeless.”

SHIP is a nonprofit organization that MaryLynne and her husband, Ed, formed in November 2014 after building a following on Facebook. Its mission is to fulfill the immediate needs of homeless students and their families as they begin to get on the road to stability and security. That can include new clothing for children, funds to pay for short-term motel stays or financing for school activities and extracurriculars. The organization’s only requirement is that its services benefit a child who is a student in Frederick County Public Schools and identified as homeless under federal law.

During the 2015-2016 school year, 812 students in 61 of the county’s 66 schools were homeless at some point during the year, says Cathleen Cullen, homeless education program administrator for Frederick County. For a student to no longer be considered homeless, they must have a fixed, not temporary, address. “They have a key to the place, it’s regular and they are staying there every night. They don’t have to worry about coming home and their stuff being thrown out. It’s not in a trailer with no running water.”

Nationwide, the number of homeless students had doubled since before the recession—reaching 1.36 million during the 2013-14 school year, the last year for which national data is available, according to a federal report. Maryland reported an estimated 16,554 homeless students that school year.

Since then, the overall homeless population in Frederick County has been growing, about a 12 percent increase from 2015 to 2016 according to survey results released this May.

Launching SHIP

Before the Hindes started SHIP, their image of a homeless person was not of a child. “Our perception of the homeless was really this adult male, for the most part. That was the image of homelessness,” MaryLynne says.

That began to change when a friend forwarded to Ed an email from a Frederick County Public Schools administrator who was seeking new clothing for a 12-year-old boy attending West Frederick Middle School. The administrator discovered the boy wearing flip-flops to school during the start of frigid winter temperatures and a discussion with the boy revealed he had been couch surfing.

Ed shared the email with their friends. They, too, were shocked, and the group immediately gathered the clothing requested. They started a Facebook page to solicit volunteers to purchase clothing for more students. Help began pouring in; people began bringing clothes directly to the Hindes’ house—more than was requested—as well as money.

School administrators became intrigued by the response. Every school has one staff member who serves as a coordinator for the homeless students, reporting to Cullen and working to coordinate services for the students. Many students self-identify themselves during discussions with administrators, Cullen says. But an estimated 100 others who are “unaccompanied”—homeless without parents—are harder to identify and track, Hinde says.

Before SHIP was formed, coordinators would seek help, usually clothes, for homeless students by sending emails to a list of people. But the process was inefficient; it was often difficult to get a response or to coordinate a drop off when necessary, Cullen says. “SHIP brought that community together.” SHIP now works directly with each school homeless coordinator and rallies help from community volunteers. “And they’re creative,” Cullen says.

Virginia Strnad of Point of Rocks, now a member of SHIP’s board of directors, became one of the most reliable volunteers when the Hindes first launched their effort and has since helped streamline the process for working with schools and volunteers. Now the school system tells SHIP specific sizes of clothing needed for homeless students it has identified, for example, and SHIP details those needs in Facebook posts to their volunteers, called “SHIPmates.” The organization has more than 2,600 SHIPmates who follow them on Facebook and respond to a rolling queue of requests.

SHIP also works with the schools to help them continue to identify homeless students. They provide posters for every school detailing the signs of a homeless student and try to educate the public through speeches, brochures and more.

Repeatedly wearing the same, unwashed clothing is a frequent sign of homelessness, and one that school homeless coordinators often rely on to determine which students might need help. It’s important to the children to have new, clean clothing in their efforts to keep their situation private from peers. Like with any child, the desire to just fit in is important. That typical childhood stress, added to the stress of not having a place to sleep or do homework, or not having enough to eat, eventually affects a child’s health and cognitive abilities, Cullen says.

The Hindes didn’t want to duplicate services provided by other nonprofits and community leaders. “We fill the gap,” MaryLynne says, by collecting funds to pay for short-term motel stays until the parents or students can make connections with organizations like the Religious Coalition, Frederick Community Action Agency or other services for the homeless. “We allow that period of time for that family to become stable enough and to become calm enough … to then be able to go, ‘Now I can ask for help,’” she says.

“We look at ourselves as like the EMS. We’re just going to put a Band-Aid on you … we’re going to stop the bleeding.” And SHIP can apply the Band-Aid quickly. “We don’t require anybody to fill out any paperwork or justify their needs to jump through hoops to get help.”

SHIP helps not just with purchases of clothing, but also with fundraising. A variety of community and business organizations also have responded to the need for support by holding fundraisers to help SHIP cover the costs of motel stays, clothing and extra-curricular activities from sports, to prom, to drivers’ education. Sometimes it’s just a ride they need to or from activities, or it’s help financing a dress or athletic uniform.

Any little help can make it easier for a homeless student to feel a part of their school community and raise their spirits. “Usually when a child’s self-esteem is raised you can see effects across the board,” Cullen says.

“Going from one place to another”

Tanya had moved with her four children from Virginia to Frederick to help her aunt with a business. Soon after, however, her aunt was hospitalized with stage four lung cancer. The prognosis was grim, and the company accountant said it was best to shut the business down. Tanya’s aunt died within two months, and two months later, without income from the business, Tanya could no longer afford her condo.

SHIP helped pay for a few nights at a motel for the family until they obtained temporary housing through Advocates for Homeless Families in spring 2015. SHIPmates also purchased clothing for her four children and connected with the Career and Technology Center at Frederick Community College to collect household goods. Students at the center also made a complete meal for the family as they settled in.

Until that point, “It was stressful going from one place to another,” says Tori, Tanya’s daughter, who was in 10th grade at the time (their names have been changed to protect their identity). “It made it especially hard to do homework at that time,” she says.

SHIP also paid for Tori’s older brother to attend driving school to obtain his license. Tanya says SHIP provided so much help for her children, “sometimes they didn’t really realize they were in that situation” of homelessness. Tori says she knew, but was able to remain positive. “With all the help we were getting, it was easy to believe we were going to get stabilized,” she says.

The Hindes continue to seek more ways to help students and help the community discuss ways to address poverty, becoming more knowledgeable themselves about poverty rates, the need for affordable housing and better wages and problems of addiction and domestic violence. MaryLynne is closely studying a program in Baltimore called THREADS, which provides mentors for at-risk children and has grandparents advise those mentors. But they aren’t trying to solve all the problems for the students or families, though. “We’re funders. We’re not social workers,” MaryLynne says.

After MaryLynne talked with Abbey—the Tuscarora student who lived in her SUV—SHIP put out a request on Facebook for a family willing to take the girl into their home while she completed high school. Seven offers came through immediately, and eventually Abbey was connected with a family with three daughters.

SHIP “just allowed me to be in a situation where I didn’t have to worry about where to put my head for a few months and to be able to graduate high school.” She also was able to complete a nursing certification program at Frederick Community College. Now working two jobs, she has resumed classes at FCC with thoughts of possibly becoming an addiction counselor. SHIP helped her file paperwork to ensure she could get government grants to cover the tuition. That didn’t immediately solve all her problems, Abbey admits. But, she says, “SHIP definitely has let me put my foot in a more steady place.”