Shelters now help homeless kids with ABCs, too

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Four years ago, when her mother took her out of a dilapidated home in Oakland, two garbage bags of clothes in hand, Keiona became a homeless child, bouncing from homeless shelter to shelter to a house of a family friend.

Her mother, Virgie, would scream at the little girl to get away so she could smoke crack. The girl's behavior vacillated from rebellious to clingy, and her grades suffered.

Today, Virgie and Keiona live together at Sojourner House MOMS in East Liberty, a homeless shelter for single mothers with mental health and substance abuse issues. On a recent day, Virgie, a 51-year-old recovering addict who asked that her last name not be used, and 11-year-old Keiona were doing something novel for them -- playing a computer game together at a new learning center for homeless children.

On any given day in Allegheny County, an estimated 600 children experience homelessness, according to the Homeless Children's Education Fund. The county reported there were 545 homeless children in May 31, 2008, the latest figure available. But there are no comparison figures from past years because of changes in the way the numbers are reported.

Homeless children, understandably, often suffer from anxiety and developmental delays and have trouble concentrating. Cut off from medical care, they often have health problems.

They also suffer academically as they bounce from school to school.

"They don't get grounded in the educational system," said Sara K. McNally, office and events manager of HCEF. "They have had a hard time keeping up."

After getting yanked out of her home in 2004, Keiona had trouble focusing and was getting Cs, Ds and a few failing grades.

Then she and her mother settled into a three-bedroom apartment in Sojourner House MOMS in 2005, and her grades slowly improved. Last year, she made the honor roll with As and Bs after her mother got her medication for her attention problem.

Even when Virgie was transient -- going to a shelter, getting kicked out, living with a friend in Bellevue -- she made sure Keiona didn't miss much school. In fact, she would wake up at 5 a.m. so that she and her daughter could catch a 6 a.m. bus from her friend's house in Bellevue to her old school in Greenfield.

Other homeless children miss a lot of school, sometimes a week or two as their parents fill out the paperwork to be admitted to a shelter. "If a kid is in second grade and learning to read, catching up is very difficult," Ms. McNally said.

Keoina was sad to leave her old school in Greenfield. And she didn't tell her friends why she had to leave her home.

"The house was all messed up," the slight girl said, her eyes turning downcast. "I didn't want to talk about it."

To help the education of children who have experienced homelessness, HCEF, aided by a $10,000 gift from Duquesne Light, put an educational center in Sojourner House MOMs. It has three flat-screen computers, books, educational software, games. Tutors visit some evenings to help children with their schoolwork. HCEF also has education centers in shelters in the Hill District, Braddock and Clairton.

Virgie, who has never owned a personal computer, is grateful that her daughter and other children there can go downstairs and do their homework. "It saves them from going all the way to East Liberty, to the library."

The education center also is a place for children to relax and play games. "The kids love it," said Joann Cyganovich, executive director of Sojourner House. "They don't even know they are learning."

On a recent day, Virgie was happily playing a race car computer game with her daughter -- a big switch from the days when she would scream for her daughter to get away and when she lived in fear of going to jail, losing her four children. Keoina is the youngest, and bore the brunt of her homelessness. Clean for almost four years, Virgie is trying to make up for lost time with her daughter.

The sight of Keoina playing in the educational center with the other children makes her feel good.

"It's a stable environment," Virgie said. "It's all about them playing and forgetting the past."

Cristina Rouvalis can be reached at or 412-263-1572.


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