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Hawaii News

School a struggle for homeless kids

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Taimane Domen, 5, with her great-grandmother, Karen Gonsalves, 71, was excited to receive a red backpack at the Catholic Charities Back to School Jam for keiki of Maili Land Transitional Housing on Monday.

Before landing at a transitional housing facility in Maili, Karen Gonsalves, her two great-grandchildren and other family members were living in a bus for 2½ years in Nanakuli, where she said a man allowed them to park on his property. The kids’ mother was in jail, and their fathers were not in the picture, she said.

Gonsalves ended up raising her 5-year-old great-granddaughter and 15-year-old great-grandson on her own. A Waianae High School and University of Hawaii graduate, Gonsalves never expected this to happen to her. She soon found herself seeking out the same services that she once helped other families find as a social worker on the Waianae Coast.

But the challenges her grandson faced at school were heartbreaking. Soon to be a sophomore at Waianae High, he got into fights at school after his classmates teased and bullied him for being homeless, she said.

Besides the bullying, Gonsalves said many struggling families do not have enough money to buy their children’s school supplies.

“Prior to here (Maili facility), it was really uncomfortable, and he was really embarrassed because the kids, they know,” Gonsalves said. “You can imagine how much money … that would cost to do the school supplies.”

To help the nearly 100 kids who live at Maili Land Transitional Housing, a 44-unit short-term site run by Catholic Charities Hawaii which serves about 300 homeless each year, community members collected dozens of donated backpacks and money to purchase supplies, including folder paper, crayons and shoes, to give to children Monday.

Stuffed with Aloha, an organization led by 19-year-old Kekoa Manner, donated 85 backpacks, several with widely known brand names. Manner, a Pearl City resident and graduate of Mililani High School who has helped at the Maili facility for nine years, said his favorite part of the donation drive is seeing the smile on kids’ faces after they pick up their school supplies.

“When I was younger, I was spoiled a lot with having a new backpack every year,” Manner said. “I kept hearing about kids not having school supplies … and that they couldn’t afford it. So I was just like, ‘Maybe I can stop spoiling myself with a new bag … and try give it back to someone who really needs it.’ It’s a necessity, not a luxury.”

Gonsalves’ great-granddaughter, Taimane Domen, who starts kindergarten at Maili Elementary this week, picked out a bright red backpack, a box of crayons and folder paper Monday. Gonsalves also scored a black O’Neill backpack for her great-grandson.

During the 2013-2014 school year, there were 2,422 homeless students enrolled in the state Department of Education’s public and charter schools out of a total of 185,273 students, according to DOE spokeswoman Donalyn Dela Cruz.

Dela Cruz said the department works with community organizations to provide services to several of the schools, such as meals.

“While we may or may not know if they’re homeless or not, there’s a need for services … knowing for a lot of these kids, that’s probably the only meals they’re going to get,” Dela Cruz said. “We don’t want to make the assumption, but we know the realities.”

Homeless counts have increased over the past five years, with 7,620 this year, 6,918 last year, 6,335 in 2013, 6,246 in 2012 and 6,188 in 2011.

The number of homeless families statewide totaled about 800, nearly 600 of which were sheltered this year, according to the state Department of Human Services. On Oahu there were 556 households with 2,340 adults and children, which included 1,319 under the age of 18.

Theresa Joseph, the Maili facility’s program director for nearly 16 years, said the site also offers classes to kids and helps motivate them to work hard. But she added that several of the students who are homeless face struggles at school, including access to resources and tools, as well as teasing and bullying by peers.

“If a single mom has seven children, how is she going to afford this (school supplies)?” Joseph said.

Kahea Tua, who lives at the Maili facility with her four young daughters and husband, said it was hard for her oldest when they were living in a minivan at one of the Waianae beaches for about two months. Tua, 25, said her daughter racked up several absences during that period, but added that she is doing better now.

“It was rough. It was so rough,” Tua said. “Just getting them to school was hard.”

Joseph said many of the kids at the Maili facility strive for more.

“A lot of our children have grown up from shelter to shelter to shelter,” Joseph said. “(But) instead of having everything put in their hand, they have to work for it. I think they work harder.”

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