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Elementary School Pilot Program Helps Family Escape Homelessness

Taylor Winkel
Northwest News Network
Fifth grader Simya Gantt is doing better in school thanks to a unique program in Tacoma, Wash.

Across the country more than one million kids may not know where they’re going to sleep tonight.

It could be in a car, on a friend’s couch, in a homeless shelter, or even on the street. In Washington state alone there are more than 30,000 homeless children and for these kids getting their homework done is the least of their problems.

Now a unique program out of Tacoma is trying to help those kids do better in school, one family at a time.

Tameka Gantt shows me around her cozy, four bedroom Tacoma townhouse. Two of her daughters, Kimora and Simya, are lying on a bed in their shared bedroom. They just got home from school and are doing math quizzes together on the tablet they got from school.

Just four years ago, this scene was only a dream to Tameka and her husband, Bobby.

“It was pretty difficult, I didn’t know if we were going to be homeless and we were just looking for other alternate routes,” says Bobby.

The Gantts had just moved to Washington state from California with their four kids. Their only possessions were a minivan and the clothes they had on their back.

Bobby was working two part-time restaurant jobs to make ends meet. But he lost them both in the same week. There was no money to pay the rent on their small, two bedroom apartment.

And it was difficult for Bobby to find a new job. He didn't graduate from high school and there was another complication. Bobby has a criminal record from a drug offense as a minor.

“We got a lot of no’s," he says. "No, no, no, no, no. Interviews, jobs. ‘Sorry, can’t hire you because of your record.’”

This is where the McCarver Special Housing Program enters the story. The two-and-a-half-year-old program is a partnership between McCarver Elementary School in Tacoma and the Tacoma Housing Authority. It helps families like the Gantts find and pay rent on a new home.

“It took us two years of full time planning just to get this thing started, and we’re obviously learning as we go,” says program manager Michael Power. He says there’s nothing else like it in the whole country.

McCarver serves a neighborhood that is generally low income. And poverty causes many families to move in and out of the area.

“New kids come, then they leave and it just turns over and over and over again," says Power. "For teachers it’s like trying to teach at a bus station. Every time a bus arrives, you’ve got a whole new class.”

“Many of our behavioral challenges are a result of poverty and homelessness,” explains McCarver's school councilor, Carol Ramm-Gramenz.

“For kids who don’t know where they’re going to sleep at night, or don’t know where they’re going to be next month, the stress and anxiety that’s on their shoulders, they act it out.”

Ramm-Gramenz says their program works by giving these kids and their families a home and stability in an unstable world. That begins with subsidizing the family’s rent for five years. Beginning at 100 percent, the support decreases by 20 percent each subsequent year. At the end of five years the subsidy stops.

This was a lifeline for the Gantts. Three of their kids were already at McCarver when they lost their income, but the program was right there.

The Gantts say that since they have been enrolled in the program, their kids' grades have changed "big time."

Their 10-year-old daughter Simya says she loves reading, math and writing. But she seems especially excited about science. She says earlier today she was investigating how fast a toy car can go around various racing tracks.

“When we start our investigation we do questions, and a prediction and our materials and our procedures where we write our steps down.”

Simya dreams of a future of stardom. One day, she hopes to be a singer and actress.

Back at their townhouse Bobby and Tameka say without the fear of homelessness hanging over their heads, they have been able to focus on their future, too. They have two more children. Tameka is a full time student, working towards her bachelors degree in social work. And Bobby graduated from a culinary arts program, but put that career direction on hold when he got a full-time job at the post office.

“Even though I’m doing a whole different profession but its an accomplishment from a person who was a high school drop out,” says Bobby.

Tameka adds, “It gave us real confidence like okay we can do this now because they’re here to help us.

Right now, the housing program is assisting 42 families like the Gantts, and more than 70 kids. The Tacoma Housing Authority pitches in most of the funding for the program with help from Pierce County, and a non-profit called “Building Changes.”

A measure to replicate the program was introduced in the legislature this year, this time funded by the state’s general fund. But with no room in the budget, it died early on in the session.

The bill’s sponsor says she will try again next year.