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Promising Project in Salt Lake City : School Gives Homeless Pupils a Rest From Lessons of the Road

July 19, 1987|NEIL HENRY | The Washington Post

SALT LAKE CITY — Robert Kovach was frustrated. There he sat in the first row of the classroom trying to write an essay about "Things I Like to Do," but every time the 16-year-old put pencil to paper, he came up blank.

The distractions didn't help. On one side of the room, a 7-year-old girl from Montana was excited about her drawing of an imaginary house she hoped her family would one day own. On the other, a boy from Seattle was giggling over a science experiment.

"Why don't you go out into the hallway where it's quiet?" his teacher, Marilyn Treshow, suggested. Fifteen minutes later, Kovach returned with a composition that caught her by surprise.

"I like to go off where no one can find me and just ponder my thoughts about different things I've been through, such as living in a shelter and being looked upon as someone who'll never have anything in life," he wrote. "It makes you feel like you just want to explode. . . .

'Going to Better Myself'

"I like to think of how I am going to better myself in the future, like getting my own business and owning my own house, because I am not going to end up like this."

This one-room schoolhouse, wedged under a highway viaduct on the southwest side of Salt Lake City--the "Crossroads of the West,"--goes by many names: "The Shelter School," "The Viaduct School," "The School on 6th Street." But to the 14 homeless pupils who range in age from 6 to 16 and claim an equal share in rootlessness, it is known simply as "The School With No Name."

"They're just like other children except they know more about life and learn it sooner than other kids," said Treshow, an employee of the Salt Lake City school system who has been teaching at the 3-year-old school for two years. "I'm consistently amazed by how many places they have seen, and the troubles they've had, but what really comes through is the strength. These are very strong kids."

There is no place in this country quite like "The School With No Name," which doubles at night as a shelter. Students get their hot lunches not in a cafeteria but in a soup kitchen across the railroad tracks at St. Vincent DePaul. The playground is not a grass field but a wooden hut piled high with donated clothes in which the kids burrow tunnels to play hide-and-seek and war.

Map Records Travels

And the centerpiece of the classroom is not a multiplication table or a list of the alphabet but a large map of the United States that boldly proclaims, "Places I Have Been." The map is crisscrossed by scores of black threads showing where their parents have searched for work and a sense of place.

"Colorado, Washington, California, Oregon, Wyoming," Robert Kovach said, listing a few states where his family has lived or traveled through in the last three years. His brother and two sisters sat with him in the classroom. "What I'd really like is for Dad to get a job and for us to get a decent house. It's no fun living like this."

This school, which serves only homeless children in a public shelter, was started in 1984 by the city's public school system with Traveler's Aid International, which runs the family shelter here, to educate children who otherwise would not--or could not--attend school.

Most American cities try to put homeless children in regular public schools, but few are able to attend full-time.

Most Fall Through Cracks

"Proof of residency requirements often prevent them (homeless children) from going to local schools, and more often they just fall through the cracks," said Maria Foscarinis, Washington counsel for the National Coalition for the Homeless. "The fact that a place like Salt Lake City has such a school points up how widespread the problem has become."

According to national advocates for the homeless, families with children constitute the fastest-growing segment of the nation's homeless population, most of whom are single men. The Coalition for the Homeless estimates on the basis of a 1986 national survey that families now make up about 30% of 250,000 to 2.2 million homeless people in the United States.

Coalition officials point to cutbacks in federal anti-poverty programs and the increasing scarcity of housing for low-income people to explain this statistic. Since 1981, money for low-income housing programs, including rent subsidies and public housing, has been cut nearly 80%: from $32 billion to $7 billion, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Without such support, many poor families have sought a temporary haven in public shelters or moved to other cities when jobs and unemployment benefits are lost. And in the West, Salt Lake City--The Crossroads--happens to be a place where many such families end up, latter-day "Okies" in the land of the Latter-day Saints.

Bob and Iris Kovach, Robert's parents, came here in March from Longmont, Colo. They are fairly typical of the approximately 2,200 homeless families who spend time in the shelter here each year--white, young to middle-age and originally from other states.

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