Homeless children live in her heart


Courtney Allen is the first and only Alachua County Public Schools Homeless Education Coordinator, keeping track of and helping students who are homeless, shown with various supplies, including hygiene products, uniforms and school materials, in her office in Gainesville, Friday, March 1, 2013.

Erica Brough/Staff Photographer
Published: Sunday, March 10, 2013 at 5:13 p.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, March 10, 2013 at 5:13 p.m.

Courtney Allen has fielded hundreds of calls for help over her six years as the Alachua County school system's point person on homeless students.

Facts

Facts about homeless kids

The McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, reauthorized by Title X, Part C, of the No Child Left Behind Act, ensures educational rights and protections for children and youth experiencing homelessness.
The term "homeless children and youth" means individuals who lack a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence. This includes children and youths who are:
Sharing the housing of other persons due to loss of housing, economic hardship, or a similar reason;
living in motels, hotels, trailer parks, or camping grounds due to the lack of alternative accommodations.
Living in emergency or transitional shelters; are abandoned in hospitals; or are awaiting foster care placement>
Living in a public or private place not designed for or ordinarily used as a regular sleeping accommodation for humans.
Living in cars, parks, public spaces, abandoned buildings, substandard housing, bus or train stations, or similar settings.

The Alachua County Public Schools homeless education coordinator, Courtney Allen, said there are 500 students identified as homeless in Alachua County. She projects the county will have about 700 or 800 identified students by the end of the school year.

SOURCE: Alachua County Public Schools

One still haunts her.

An Alachua County principal called her about five years ago for help with a very promising student who had been kicked out of her mother's house.

Allen kept a close eye on the straight-A student, who eventually moved back in with her mother.

One morning, Allen received another call from the girl's school.

"Ms. Allen, are you sitting down?" the school guidance counselor asked.

"Yeah. What's going on?" Allen responded.

Allen learned that the student had been found dead.

"I think about her to this day," she said. "She would have graduated by now, and I have no doubt that she would be doing well."

Of all the sad cases Allen has handled, this one lingers the most.

"That was the hardest time," she said, "the hardest time."

***

Allen is living proof that homeless students can excel in school and in life. After losing her home, the Jacksonville native moved in with relatives during her high school years.

"You can be sad and depressed and crawl up in a shell and desire not to thrive anymore," she said, "or we can look around and be thankful for what we do have and keep moving."

When she was 4 or 5 years old, Allen would visit her grandmother, who was a foster mom. She spent nights at her grandmother's group home playing with the foster children. It was there, she said, that she learned the importance of helping others.

"I certainly believe that those experiences from our childhood play into what we become," Allen said. "She played a very instrumental part in my life. She was a great person and a wonderful advocate for people, and that's what she did."

When Allen was in high school, her grandmother died.

"It was like a whirlwind, and I remember my mom, who was extremely distraught as any child would be after the loss of a parent," she said. "Sometimes parents just don't have it all together, and they can't navigate or deal with the emotions of the time."

Allen's immediate family ended up losing their home and moving in with relatives. "I can in retrospect say that was my life. That was my experience," she said. "When talking with my families and the kids I encounter, I think it is important that they know you're not alone."

Allen said there was no program in school to help homeless students like there is now. She did not have the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, which provides federal funding to states to support programs for homeless students to fall back on. Nor did she have the counselor at school to tell her she qualified for the act's services.

"We kind of navigated through it, and ‘this too shall pass' was the feel of it all," she said. "We had fallen on tough times. Such is life, and it's not uncommon, and you're not exempt. We just pick up the pieces and keep moving."

Allen moved from homelessness into college life. She received a singing scholarship that allowed her to afford her higher education.

"Music was my thing. It's something I've done all my life," said Allen, who continues to enjoy singing, especially gospel. "Music is so powerful. It's universal."

She graduated from Bethune-Cookman University with a Bachelor of Science in psychology. Allen knew she wanted to continue her education, and when a professor informed her of a possible opportunity in Atlanta, she decided to move.

"To move to another state wasn't hard to do," said Allen, who earned a master's in counseling from Clark Atlanta University. "You just put gas in the car and go."

While living in Atlanta, Allen and her now-husband of 12 years, the Rev. David Allen, started a homeless ministry and would prepare meals for the homeless and hand them out after church on Sunday.

"We were in Atlanta for four years, and I would say three of the four years that's what we did on the weekends," she said. "My husband had a truck, so we set up the back of the truck and bought all of the utensils and food, and hundreds would come."

***

The 37-year-old mother of three now works with 500 students who have been identified as homeless in Alachua County. She has been the Alachua County Public Schools' homeless education coordinator for six years, and the role has not been easy.

"The first couple of years, I would go home in tears — a wreck — worrying and thinking about these babies, and whether they would eat that night and where do they sleep," said Allen, who previously worked as a guidance counselor in other counties. "Until I established healthier boundaries, I would have people calling me literally all times of the night."

The job took a toll on her family as well, she said, especially her two sons — now ages 6 and 7 — and her 11-year-old daughter.

"I was worn out by the time I got home. I had nothing to give myself, my kids — just depleted because I was so overly consumed with ‘I wonder if Jimmy got food tonight,' " she said. "It was like, ‘Mommy, can you read us a book?' and I'm sleeping and nodding through the book."

Allen's husband said his wife became disappointed and overwhelmed when she learned certain families were not being given the services they deserved.

"Several days in the first two to three years, Courtney brought a lot of her work home and the disappointment she harbored," he said.

He said they both now understand their own children are their first priority. They have designated Friday evenings as family time. "People are going to be pulling at us all the time, but that does not mean our kids take a backseat," he said. "Courtney is a strong supporter of eating together and praying together."

Allen said no matter what she is home for family dinner every night. "That's non-negotiable," she said.

Her husband said she is the nurturer of the family.

"She's the one who will cuddle with you in bed and stroke your head," he said.

***

Allen said she now realizes that, while it is her job to help homeless families, there is only so much that she can do.

"Rather than continuing that unhealthy vein, I had to really focus my energies in a different way," she said. "I became more involved in the community and seeking out resources and trying to educate and give my parents somewhat of a fighting chance and really empower them to do the research for themselves as well, because that's part of the process."

She said that, although she works to ensure students have food, shelter and proper resources, the main focus of her job is making sure the children and the parents receive the education that they need.

"For our parents in particular, there are referrals for parenting classes," she said. "Some parents I've had to encourage and support by way of finding resources for them to go back to get their GED. Sometimes it's financial literacy.''

A big part of what the job of homeless education coordinator requires is just talking with families and students, she said.

"For my students, it's really just encouraging them through this traumatic period in their lives," she said. "What I don't want them to do is drop out. I don't want them to become so overwhelmed or consumed with the things in the home or the lack of a home or the things that are not in the home so that they totally lose focus on their schooling."

Allen said she is a "one-man show" and must depend heavily on guidance counselors within the schools because she does not have the ability to meet one-on-one with all the students.

"We have 24 elementary schools, nine middle schools and seven high schools, so it's virtually impossible," she said. "So I have points of contacts at each school who are aware of the students who have been identified at their schools."

She keeps tabs on the students through a student database and constant communication with the schools. She said at least once or twice a week she does a site visit to area shelters, schools or homes.

Some of her responsibilities include training school employees, networking within the community and completing reports for the state.

Shelves filled with school supplies, hygiene supplies and uniform shirts line a wall of her office, and a copy of Dr. Seuss' "Oh, the Places You'll Go!" is positioned tall on top of her filing cabinet.

Allen said the most challenging part of her job has been dispelling the myths of what the homeless should look like.

"That's an ongoing battle within the schools because people's perceptions and definitions are very different," she said.

Allen said strides have been made, however.

"There has been more intention in ensuring that no school is left behind," she said.

Allen is also a member of the Alachua County Coalition for the Homeless and Hungry. She said "it's a must" to stay connected.

"It's not required for this job. It's one of those things you know you need to be a part of," she said. "We share resources and ideas and what's going on in the community."

David Allen said people who know and appreciate his wife often stop him in the grocery store. He said people now associate Allen with the McKinney-Veto Act and her regard for life.

"I'm married to an angel," he said. "Her faith in God has really given her a special outlook on life that puts her in a place of serving more so than being served."

He said what makes his wife so successful is her ability to think several steps ahead and the passion behind her care.

"It's obvious that it's not just a job," he said.

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