NORTH KINGSTOWN—Veronica DelBois is a typical, everyday working mother.
With three kids and a job as a Certified Nursing Assistant, DelBois is always on the go, taking care of others while doing her part to make her world, and the world of those around her, just a little bit better.
With an infectious laugh and a warm, gentle smile, DelBois is the very definition of success in today’s rigorous economic climate.
It’s when she sits down to think of what it took for her to get here that the tears start to flow.
“Veronica, you have to move.”
Sitting on a soft and inviting couch Monday afternoon in her apartment in the Crossroads Family Housing Complex on Navy Drive, DelBois tells her story.
It’s a story of sadness, of hope and of triumph but also a story that represents an alarming trend in North Kingstown.
As a homeless mother living in Providence. DelBois and her three children—six-year old Ashley, four-year old Jeremy and two-year old Ismael—bounced from place to place and room to room.
Sometimes they would catch a break, such as the time when Veronica was able to rent a house from someone who knew her and her family well. But, more often than not, the only thing breaking was her will.
As she struggled to find a way out of a situation she couldn’t control, Veronica had to make several tough decisions and endure days and nights full of worry about what the future held.
“I rented a house from a guy who knew me,” she said. “He rented the apartment for me and my three children but he told me, he said ‘Veronica, you have to move because I have to rent to another family because you only pay $500’.”
Veronica’s story is not uncommon in North Kingstown today.
According to the recently-released Kids Count Fact Book, and according to the Washington County Coalition for Children’s (WCCC) 2010 update ‘… And how are the children?’, homelessness in North Kingstown is growing at an incredible rate.
So what, exactly, is homelessness?
A term that seems to have an easy enough definition—homelessness means people without a home, right?—it is actually much more complicated than it first appears.
Homelessness is an expression used to define any person who has “stayed at homeless shelters, domestic violence shelters or transitional housing facilities” and the number of homeless children in North Kingstown, considered by many to be one of
Rhode Island’s most affluent communities, is staggering.
Of the 36 school districts studied in the Kids Count Fact Book, North Kingstown ranked second only to Providence in the number of children identified as homeless by public school personnel.
With a total enrollment of 4,456 students, North Kingstown’s 189 children who fit the definition of homeless represents a little over four percent of the total population, a much higher percentage than Providence, which has 203 homeless children among its ranks but a total student body population of well over 23,000.
What do those numbers actually represent?
That’s a question North Kingstown Supt. Dr. Phillip Thornton likes to ask.
“The information talks about all the identified homeless families; that’s not to say those are all the homeless folks in any given community,” Thornton said. “As you know, we’re second. Does that mean we have the second most homeless folks? I’m not sure I can say that.”
Regardless of your opinion of the numbers themselves, there is no denying things seem to be getting worse for families in North Kingstown.
In the past five years, North Kingstown has seen its number of homeless children and youth enrolled in public schools nearly double. What once was something that only affected 97 students in the 2005-2006 school year now affects nearly 200 and the change in the last 12 months alone – a total of 42 students – is cause for concern.
More important than those numbers, which many experts say are inflated because they include children from families like Veronica’s who live at Crossroads and children who are “doubling up” by staying with family members or friends, are the other indicators of poverty among school-age children.
Lori Duffy, a member of the WCCC, says those facts and figures give a more realistic look into how serious the problem is.
“We have lots of data as to how poverty has increased in North Kingstown over the years,” she said.
Besides an increasing number of people needing heating assistance, she said “there are more kids applying for school meals, more kids getting medical assistance. All those numbers, if you look over the past eight years, have increased between 30-80 percent.” Duffy’s research is hard to dispute.
Since 2001, the number of children enrolled in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Programs (also known as SNAP, formerly food stamps) is up 87.9 percent in Washington County. In North Kingstown alone, there has been a 107 percent increase in the number of children participating since 2005. As of last year, 798 students in town received SNAP benefits.
When you look at the increase in the number of students participating in free or reduced-cost school meals and, or, receiving low-income home energy assistance, two other indicators of poverty, the picture is even clearer. Both numbers have skyrocketed since 2001.
“Poverty has been definitely increasing over the past couple of years; certainly the economy has impacted all that,” Duffy said. “Kids who are getting free or reduced school meals, from 2001 to 2009, are up almost 38 percent so all of those sorts of indicators that we look at for poverty have increased in North Kingstown.”
But it’s not just about numbers and stats. To get a real idea of how homelessness affects people, you need to delve into the personal side of the issue.
“I didn’t have anything.”
When Veronica DelBois thinks back to her time as a truly homeless mother, not just a mom living at Crossroads while she builds a strong foundation for her family to improve their lives, she gets understandably emotional.
Veronica talks about how she and her family would move from room to room and how they couldn’t rent a big house because they didn’t have the money.
“I was not working,” she recalled. “At that time, I didn’t have my high school diploma, I didn’t have anything.”
Feeling helpless is something most people can relate to on an occasional basis. Maybe you had a bad day, maybe something didn’t go the way you wanted it to. For Veronica, helplessness was a way of life. Depression became the norm.
“ When you don’t have a job and you have three kids and you don’t have anything, you feel depressed,” she said.
Veronica thinks back to her time bouncing from place to place and recalls how she sometimes had to stay with friends and wait in her car when they weren’t home.
Neither of her parents lived in this country; her options seemed bleak at best.
And then there were her children.
Trying to better herself for their sake, Veronica put aside her hopes to get her high school diploma and her hopes of owning a house.
Instead of going to college, a goal she long held, Veronica had to do whatever she could to find work to pay the bills.
Tears well up when she thinks of the night her daughter Ashley asked about their living situation, saying “Ma, I want to have my own room,” Veronica recalled.
“I said ‘OK, one day you’ll have your own room’.”
Donna Thompson is the Title I coordinator for services in the North Kingstown School Department and director of the Child Opportunity Zone Family Learning Partnership, a district-wide program that offers services to underprivileged children.
She said homelessness can manifest itself in a number of different ways, both for parents and students.
The lack of a routine, she said, is one of the biggest problems these children face.
“Is it difficult? Of course it’s difficult,” she said. “Do you know where your socks and slacks hang every morning when you get out of your bed? Kids who live in that situation very rarely feel confident that when they get up in the morning, their clothes will be there, their food will be there. A routine that is safe and comfortable and predictable is not available to them.
“I think it’s an unstable way to live and it’s hard for those of us who have not experienced that to integrate it into our daily thinking. It’s also hard for us to understand why … they can’t just learn and perform? Because their lives and their routines are not consistent. They’re not ready to learn in those situations.”
While there typically is some similarity among students in this situation, the way those students respond is hard to predict.
“Just like any other demographic, we see a multiplicity of responses to homelessness,” Thompson said. “The ones that are most identifiable and consistent, I think, are the lack of organization, concentration, staying on task, getting your work done because there are a lot of other things on their minds–things that aren’t on many other children’s minds that pull them away from their learning.”
Andy Joseph, one of two social workers in North Kingstown, sees the effects on homelessness of the students he interacts with every day.
“I think it affects kids in a lot of ways,” he said. “One of the first things when there’s a student who comes to my attention, for whatever that reason might be–emotional concerns, living situation concerns, a family crisis concern–I look at the grades. Do I think it affects their grades? Absolutely, without a doubt. It brings up a lot of issues and [making education] a priority is really limited at that point.”
Sensing that something had to give, Veronica made a move that she said changed her life.
“I make my own rules.”
After filling out applications for low-income housing everywhere she could, Veronica learned of the Crossroads Family Housing Complex on Navy Drive.
Designed as a transitional housing program for families from across Rhode Island, Crossroads is a series of three- or-four bedroom units that once were military housing but now serve some 57 low-income families.
What makes the complex different from other programs, is that Crossroads puts its residents on a path to a better future.
Crossroads director Jan Hall-Stinson said the program plays a key role for families going through a time where they need a little assistance.
“The reality is this: for some folks, they face some fairly complex issues,” she said. “They’ve not necessarily been homeless before; they don’t know where to turn to get out of their circumstance.”
Crossroads empowers families who are struggling and, through a plan of action, helps them rebuild their credit and find a path to self-sufficiency.
“We don’t do it all for people,” Hall-Stinson said. “This is an empowerment model so the families sit down with case managers here and figure out ‘This is where I’m at; This is where I want to get to; and What are the steps to get me there?’. So it means that people are really moving forward and progressing to self-sufficiency as opposed to simply being here.”
In the time since Veronica moved her family to Crossroads, she’s transformed her situation.
Now, instead of not knowing where they’re going to sleep each night, Veronica’s family has a cozy apartment with a television, furniture and kitchenware.
More importantly, they have independence.
“They helped me a lot,” Veronica says of Crossroads. “Let me tell you something: I can’t say enough because right now [my situation] could be different. Right now I go to work. When I come home, I know my kids are sleeping, because when you live with someone else, you have to adapt to their rules. Right now I make my own rules. The people here, they help you. If I have any problems, I can go talk to [case manager] Stephanie [Badeau]. Jan, she helps me if I have to go talk to her. They’re very nice.”
And how are her children adjusting to their new surroundings?
For one thing, Ashley has settled into Quidnessett Elementary School.
She loves it so much she gets upset when school is cancelled.
“She’s happy,” Veronica said. “She tells me about her friends. She loves the school. Now she’s better. She’s got her own room, she’s got her closet and everything. She’s happy. That’s what she wants.”
“It’s a huge issue.”
For more information on homelessness in North Kingstown, visit www.rikidscount.org .
Additionally, the WCCC will make a special presentation on this topic at Tuesday night’s North Kingstown School Committee meeting, beginning at 7 p.m. at North Kingstown High School.
“It’s a huge issue,” Duffy said, explaining that many people mistake the residents of Crossroads for the town’s only homeless population. “They’re not, they’re our neighbors and our co-workers and they’re our friends and they’re our family members.”