MAPLEWOOD, MO. — Officially, it's known as Joe's Place. But one of its first residents has dubbed the cheerful yellow house "Big Bird." It opened recently with enough space for four homeless boys who attend high school in the Maplewood Richmond Heights (MRH) district, near St. Louis.
The result of a collaboration between school officials, local churches, and scores of volunteers, Joe's Place appears to be a first-of-its-kind endeavor in the United States.
"The thing that makes this unique is that the school district actually put up the money for the housing," says Barbara Duffield, policy director of the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth.
The small district should be applauded for taking such direct action to meet a need, Ms. Duffield says, but it's also important for people to keep in mind that "the overall problem [nationwide] is there is not adequate attention to the needs of families and youth on the housing and shelter front."
About 14 percent of shelter requests go unmet, according to the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty in Washington. That group also reports that 48 percent of homeless families have children under 18; an additional 1 percent of the homeless population consists of unaccompanied youths. Nearly half of students who are homeless are not able to attend school for the full year.
MRH superintendent Linda Henke wasn't content to wait for the government to create more shelters. A few colleagues suggested she had enough to think about with the requirements of No Child Left Behind without taking on this project, but "if a child is homeless, he's behind," she says.
Out of 1,100 students here, about 30 each year are in situations that count as "homeless" under federal law that spells out their educational rights. Ms. Henke's concern had been growing as she saw the challenges for teen boys in particular. Many places where women seek refuge from abuse don't allow boys over a certain age, while men's shelters aren't nearby and can be intimidating, she says. She knows a boy who lived in a car and another who rents a couch.
Joe's Place doesn't have enough room for all the teens who could benefit from it, but it's a start. While experts say many teens hide their homelessness, Henke believes the community conversation about Joe's Place is encouraging more students to come forward and seek help.
The idea emerged during a conversation between Henke and Andrew Vander Maas, pastor of Crossroads Presbyterian Fellowship in Maplewood. Then an anonymous businessman offered $10,000 in seed money. "He put his money where my mouth was," Henke says with a sprightly laugh.
In meetings with zoning officials and neighbors, Henke and Pastor Vander Maas offered assurances that students with criminal records would not live in the home. Joe's Place residents will stay with their own family on weekends whenever possible. And in addition to houseparents who live with the teens, counselors will keep tabs on their progress.
The school board put up the money to buy the house last summer and plans to spend about $34,000 a year on the mortgage, insurance, and utilities. To keep four students in school each year, it seemed a reasonable cost, Henke says; it costs at least that much to house just one person in prison – a place where young men are much more likely to end up if they drop out of school.
A nonprofit organization was recently formed to manage Joe's Place and raise money for other operating expenses. It also provides a degree of separation from the school district, lest anyone be concerned about a church- state overlap.
"I've never lived in a house before," Mike says, just a few weeks into his experience with houseparents Dan and Alyssa Reeve and their baby son, Carter. (Mike is a pseudonym, used at the request of school officials.) A sophomore at the nearby high school, he needs a place to live because his mother has had trouble providing a stable home. She gave consent for him to move in this January. "I was in a place of, like, no hope at all.... It was like a beam from heaven when I saw the brochure," he says.
Instead of being distracted from schoolwork by the issues his mom is facing, Mike is now enjoying the Reeves' guidance. "We do a homework check just about every day, and [Dan] is a teacher, so if I were to ask him for help, he would give it to me," Mike says. Maybe in exchange for changing some diapers, jokes Mr. Reeve, a middle school teacher in the same building where Mike attends high school.
The appliances are still a novelty – like the washing machine, where Mike has washed all his clothes, right down to his shoelaces. "The stuff here just helps me live better, grow better, do everything better. It may seem like a little thing ... but I've never had free laundry before – that's a big thing for me," he says.
The Joe's Place board selected the Reeves as houseparents after interviewing a number of couples and a single candidate. As members of Crossroads Presbyterian, the Reeves had been looking for ways to be more involved in the community.
"Being a teacher, you see there are some things you can't fix in the classroom – you have to go out of that context to be able to meet certain needs," Mr. Reeve says. So far, they appear to have set up a good rhythm. Mike does at least 90 minutes of homework every day. He cleans his own room and takes care of the dishes after dinner. On breaks, he plays his electronic keyboard or plays video games with Mrs. Reeve. And they're all kept busy and entertained by the fuzzy-haired Carter.
The Reeves told Mike to treat Carter like a brother or a cousin, which is new to Mike because he hasn't had family experiences with anyone but his mom. "We want to show [Mike] the respect as if he was our son ... and he has shown us nothing but that type of respect back," Mr. Reeve says.
As more residents move in, they plan to break out the calendar every Sunday to make a master schedule for the week. But the Reeves aren't going to be dealing with four teenage boys on their own. A group of board members and volunteers has been setting up additional support, whether it's counseling or donated meals. The challenge is "to structure it in a way that is ... programmatically sound without institutionalizing the place," says Vince Estrada, the district's director of student services.
A stable home will give the teens an opportunity to focus on future plans, Mr. Estrada says. "They all have dreams. The key is ... do they see a path for those dreams?"
So far, Mike says he knows good grades are the key to meeting future goals. He'd like to take a year off between high school and college "to travel and eat chili," he says with a relaxed smile.
Before the district can respond to calls asking for tips about how to replicate the program, they're concentrating on success on a small scale. "If for some reason a student does not succeed in school, that's going to be a challenge for us," acknowledges Chris Fisher, the part-time director of the nonprofit and an assistant pastor at Crossroads. If the effort does pan out the way they hope it will, they're giving thought to possibly opening a home for girls or other homes for boys in nearby districts.
But there's one tip that all participants can offer: collaborate. Joe's Place couldn't have happened without the interior decorator who collected furnishings to fill the sunny home. Or the local churches that have offered to keep the house supplied with paper products and breakfast cereal. It couldn't have happened without teachers who donated $6,000, and members of the public who mailed in checks.
"What really stands out to me ... is the commitment that every person in a community matters," Vander Maas says. "So often we just stay in our own zones. But when we join arms and work with a common goal, there's a lot of things that can happen."