AUSTIN — AFTER a brief trial run of a shelter program for homeless schoolchildren, the Houston schools may have learned what many social workers already know: There are school-age children out there who don't have a place to sleep at night, but getting them to accept officially sanctioned shelter and other services is not always easy. Earlier this month the Houston Independent School District became the first in the nation to offer overnight shelter to students with no place to go at night. But after eight nights, only 15 individuals had come to the open schools for assistance, and last Friday the Houston school board decided to end the project.
Still, some school officials, led by Superintendent Joan Raymond, hope to keep some schools open part of the night to serve as referrals to other existing shelters and services.
The shelter idea was sparked by teachers arriving early in the morning at their schools to find sleepy, disheveled, and cold students waiting for doors into warmer hallways to be opened. Ms. Raymond decided to set up shelters in two schools - one for elementary schoolchildren, one for high school students.
Cutting through the reels of red tape that normally accompany any new school program, organizers were able to set up the shelters within days, with the help of the Red Cross and other agencies. ``No child should be without a warm, safe place to sleep,'' Superintendent Raymond said.
The project was applauded by many Houstonians who took it as a sign that schools are still capable of acting quickly to meet specific needs - and that they still have a heart. Others, including at least one school-board member, criticized the program as a publicity stunt that ignored the existence of other shelter programs.
Teachers who volunteered to operate the school shelters say the program only confirmed their knowledge that there are schoolchildren among the homeless. But the small response tells them, they add, that getting children to accept help will take education.
``At every school it's known there are kids who at one time or another don't have a place to sleep,'' says Frank Turner, an elementary school speech therapist who spent several nights at the shelter for elementary-school-age children. ``But you ask them and they don't want to talk about it.'' Another teacher, Daryl Davis, adds, ``I can understand that with the high school kids especially, it's a pride thing. They don't want their peers to know they're homeless.''
Officials say increased mobility, broken families, and Houston's economic downturn have all contributed to homelessness among schoolchildren. ``We had a mother come in here with three kids and no place to go one night, and then we had a pregnant 14-year-old who was just about to give birth,'' Mr. Turner says.
``Maybe keeping these shelters isn't the answer, but I think we can be some kind of referral service where people go first,'' he adds. ``If these people are coming, that's telling me there's a need.''