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Lesson on Homeless Has a Real Edge

Education: Taste of deprivation in a class project stirs unhappy memories for one girl--and resolve to speak out.


When her Irvine High School classmates wailed about giving up showers and cell phones for an awareness project on homelessness, senior Cortney Cross was silent.

When they were told that most homeless people are not the mentally ill who push shopping carts and mutter to themselves, that they are often families with children, Cortney didn't say a word.

But then, just before 125 classmates began three days of self-induced deprivation to get a taste of homelessness, Cortney let slip a secret.

For eight anxious months in her freshman year, Cortney and her family were homeless.

The 17-year-old with the long, blond hair and the perfectly pressed jeans bounced from shelters to motel rooms to her grandmother's couch.

So Cortney's mother was understandably skeptical when her daughter asked permission to participate in the suburban high school's life lesson in homeless issues, which ended Friday. The project was sponsored by Costa Mesa-based HomeAid America, which builds housing for the temporarily homeless.

Mother and daughter know firsthand that being homeless entails more than depriving yourself of a shower and television.

It's about not being able to go to your own school. It's about living apart from your mother and little brother and the agony of missing them. It's about mixing and matching your three outfits so no one will guess you have so few.

In the spring of her freshman year at Irvine High, Cortney said, she and her mother and 12-year-old brother became homeless the way many families do: They were booted out of their rental house in Irvine on short notice after a fight with roommates, and did not have enough saved for a security deposit and first and last months' rent to get into a new place.

Cortney had to leave behind a lifetime of possessions, including her baby pictures and the family Bible, because they were not allowed in to retrieve them.

The first night, the family took a bus to a shelter in Santa Ana. Cortney remembers feeling surprised and comforted to see so many other families with children in a similar situation. Her mother, Vanessa Rothweiler, burst into tears as she recalled the same scene; to her, it signified the hardship her children were facing.

So began a dislocating odyssey of motel rooms and shelters. Finally, her brother went to live with his father while Cortney stayed with her grandmother in Placentia. Their mother stayed in a variety of places in the county--all while working in an Irvine office.

Finally, her family was able to get into a subsidized housing program in Irvine, and from there into their own apartment.

Katherine Ransom, communications director of HomeAid America, said she was not surprised to find homeless students attending school in the middle-class subdivisions of Irvine.

"There could be dozens more at this school," she said.

Thursday night, the students were encouraged to sleep in their cars. They were told that as part of the lesson, they could not change clothes for two days.

No big deal, from Cortney's perspective. "I wore the same clothes for two months straight," she said.

Cortney also missed classes because she couldn't get to school from the motel in Lake Forest where her family stayed for a time. She enrolled at another campus near her grandmother's house in Placentia, then slipped back into Irvine High, telling only a few close friends where she had been.

Even though she thought the exercise wouldn't come close to giving students a sense of what being homeless is really like, Cortney decided it was important.

It might help make her classmates from middle-class homes with computers, cell phones and vacations to faraway places more aware of what can happen, what she and other children silently suffer. Especially after she overheard students last week plotting how they would mock their unwashed classmates.

"I was listening to people on my campus saying, 'Oh, we'll make fun of people who don't shower for a day,' " Cortney said. "And I thought, people should know that being homeless is not about not showering and wearing the same clothes. That's easy. The hard part is being separated from your family."

Just talking about the project brought Cortney's mother to tears again.

"I got all emotional," she said. "I worked so hard to make sure my kids don't sleep in a car, and now she wants to."

"But she said, 'No, Mom, I've got something to teach them,' " Rothweiler said. "My kids are so strong. They're stronger than me."

The school experiment over, Cortney finds herself a little disappointed in some of her classmates.

Most of them showered on Wednesday, refusing to go even one day without a shampoo, despite promising that they would wait until Thursday. Chirping cell phones in class revealed that they had not given them up either, nor had they followed through with promises to shun their normal social groups to imitate the isolation felt by the homeless.

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