by Margo Taft Stever

Johnnie with one of his Hudson Valley Writers’ Center mentors at his Fordham University Graduation, May, 2015. Photo by Margo Taft Stever

Johnnie was a sixth grade homeless African-American child, a public school student, who lived with his mother in a shelter. Volunteers working with The Hudson Valley Writers’ Center helped him break out of the cycle of homelessness to become an honor student at the Milton Hershey School, a long-time boarding school for economically disadvantaged students. After Johnnie graduated, Milton Hershey also provided him with basic funding for a college education which he has since completed. As a young adult, he first worked for Hudson River Health Care, a large not-for-profit health care provider. This year, Johnnie completed his academic requirements for a Master’s Degree in Social Work from Fordham University, and he currently works as a patient/outreach coordinator for HIV patients at the Morris Heights Health Center.

While these details highlight some of his achievements against tremendous odds, Johnnie’s longer story also underscores the way a shadow caste system confines a whole population of children to homeless shelters that have effectively become jails without bars. Human warehouses, these shelters are dismal places, especially for children. To protect privacy, most of the names of the people and some places in this story have been changed.

In 1995, at the age of ten, Johnnie arrived with his mother, Jesse, at the county-owned, but privately operated Pullman Family Center, located in Westchester County, outside of New York City. At that time, the Pullman was a 100 unit, licensed family shelter that included around 100 children of varying ages. When he arrived, Johnnie had already lost more than a full year of schooling, a deficit typical for homeless children. During his early childhood, he had lived with his grandmother in Oklahoma. Unlike his mother, who was a chronic substance abuser, his grandmother was a positive influence who took care of him, his young uncle, and his baby cousin. Johnnie’s parents had met at the Fort Sill Army Base where both worked as civilian employees. They separated shortly after his birth, and Johnnie had not seen his father for many years.

When his grandmother died, Johnnie left Oklahoma with his mother, who traveled East in search of employment. They held a garage sale to raise enough money for their bus tickets to Baltimore, where Jesse hoped to work for an old school friend. On arrival, she and Johnnie proceeded to move in with the employer. When his wife objected to the living arrangements, Jesse and Johnnie were asked to leave. They rented a room in Baltimore. Johnnie confided that he was frequently left alone. He had just managed to enter the local public school when they moved a third time.

After his mother’s living and working arrangements disintegrated, Johnnie was forced to leave school. They relocated to Peekskill, New York, where they briefly stayed with relatives. Unfortunately, when a homeless family tries to double up with relatives or friends, the adults often do not get along. Because of conflicts, Jesse and Johnnie moved into the Pullman Family Center. At about the time they entered the shelter, a group of volunteers, mostly poets and writers connected to The Hudson Valley Writers’ Center, were in the process of creating a literacy project at the shelter. By administering a writing workshop for mothers and their children, the volunteers were able to assess the extreme educational deficits of the children. Under the leadership of Jill, one of the volunteers, they expanded the workshop to launch the Comprehensive Literacy Project for shelter children. The project included a writing program, a computer lab, a reading clinic, special art classes, an after-school mentoring program, a summer tutoring program, and an educational enrichment program for the youngest participants.

The all-volunteer staff was responsible for writing grants and reports, finding and organizing high school and college student volunteers, and administering every component of the project. The Pullman’s articulated mandate was to provide emergency shelter, but included no educational support or enrichment components. The Pullman Director was so pleased with the Writers’ Center project that she once asked if it could be replicated at other regional shelters. The volunteers had the privilege of getting to know the shelter children, many of whom had an extraordinary desire to learn. Almost all were several grades behind, and some appeared never to have attended school.

Researchers who have studied the effects of homelessness on children repeatedly document significant difficulties plaguing these youngsters, including health problems such as higher than normal incidences of asthma, frequent disruptions in their living situations, and an elevated incidence of school failure. For these children, homelessness itself is one serious source of instability, but an equally debilitating factor emanates from the system our society has created to care for homeless children. Since homeless shelter residencies tend to be short-term to satisfy legislative or bureaucratic mandates, families are forced to move constantly from one makeshift environment to another. Even if children are provided with remedial education at a shelter, there is no follow-up after they leave. Families are not tracked, and there is no guarantee that they will have adequate places to live. The youngsters fall into a pit where they are often forced to fail, and where they are abandoned by every segment of society—parents, educators, and administrators of all types. These children are so far down that they do not register on any screen.

From 1995 to 2000, when Johnnie lived at the Pullman Family Center and worked with The Hudson Valley Writers’ Center Comprehensive Literacy Project, the volunteers rarely met the shelter administrators who were housed on the top floor of the shelter, but the Center volunteers had a good relationship with the Pullman childcare staff. Perhaps because of low morale and poor working conditions, that staff was in a state of constant flux with employees frequently leaving shortly after being hired. Those who stayed usually did not retain their jobs for more than a few years.

Some of the best, first-hand descriptions of living conditions at the shelter are contained in conversations with mothers who lived there during the time of Johnnie’s residency. In a discussion with Tareka, a mother who also volunteered at the shelter for over a year, the Pullman was described as a “drug-infested environment” in which some reported that drug dealing residents staked out the floors on which they lived and sometimes even hired teenage residents, promising them money or material possessions in exchange for drug sales. She detailed how the dealers would determine when residents got their welfare benefit checks and sometimes stalked them to the bank to demand their money for drugs.

Tareka highlighted how security guards and case workers were either intimidated by the residents or were indifferent to their clients’ problems. She described teenagers selling crack cocaine and marijuana to their own parents and told of young women trading sexual favors for drugs. She talked about how some children went hungry because their parents sold their food stamps or did not bother to sign their children in at the cafeteria for dinner. According to her, some drug-addicted parents bought urine from non-using residents in an effort to pass mandatory drug tests. Tareka drew a bleak picture of the chaos of nights when babies were left to cry in the hallways while some parents shot up or smoked with their friends in the secrecy of their rooms. She recalled toddlers who would sometimes be brought to the childcare room with duct-taped diapers that had not been changed for days. According to these residents during that period, in response to violence or potential drug violations, the police—a constant presence—showed up at the shelter up to five or six times a day.

Almost immediately after his appearance at the shelter, Johnnie excelled in his schoolwork in comparison to most other shelter children. He was a student who could stay on grade level and work independently despite missing countless days of school. He was interested in art and willing to assist other children with their homework in his free time. He was one of those rare children who possessed both the intelligence and the concentration necessary to function in a dysfunctional environment. What allowed Johnnie and Jesse to exist in the unpredictable shelter environment was not only their ability to reach out to people, but also their development of alternative survival strategies.

When Jesse was incapacitated by her alcohol and drug addiction, Johnnie stayed with another shelter family which included ten children. To this day, he still refers to the mother of that family as “Aunt Sarah” and considers her children to be his brothers and sisters. After he left to attend boarding school and college, he often visited them whenever he returned for vacation. In the absence of a functional biological family, Johnnie established a family-like relationship with his alternative family as well as with several of the Writers’ Center volunteers and Pullman child care staff workers.

After Johnnie and his mother had lived at the shelter for a few years, and shortly before they were about to be out-placed into alternate temporary housing, Jesse was arrested for shoplifting and jailed for a month. She told Jill that she had developed her drug addiction to crack cocaine while at the shelter. Whether this assertion is true is unknown, but drug problems were widely documented by anyone familiar with the Pullman. At this point with his mother in jail, Johnnie went to live with his aunt and relatives in the Bronx. When his mother was released, he explained that he wanted to continue to live with his aunt, but Jesse insisted that he return to live with her so that she could get an adequate placement in a shelter. The Pullman was generally considered one of the best shelters because it was reserved for families, and Jesse knew that she could eventually return only if Johnnie lived with her. He was forced to move back with his mother, who was at first placed in a different county shelter located on a busy commercial street in a former Howard Johnson’s Motel. This shelter was eventually torn down after the neighbors attempted to construct a thirty-foot fence “protecting” them from the shelter residents.

At the time Jesse was first jailed, in accordance with a shelter rule, all of their belongings were thrown out. As a matter of policy, when a resident left the shelter for over forty-eight hours, the shelter administration dumped everything the person owned into the garbage. Johnnie and his mother lost records and, consequently, lost contact with many family members and friends. Jesse lost her driver’s license, her purse, their birth certificates, all transcripts, and family records of every kind.

Lost records are often responsible for keeping homeless children from getting admitted to public school in a timely fashion, and that absence is one of the major reasons for their difficulty in staying on grade level. Johnnie had now changed schools several times and has missed a significant number of school days, but he seemed miraculously capable of keeping up with his school work. When he was once again required by law to attend a different local school, he tells how he was teased by students because he lived in a shelter, which is another common problem for homeless children. Nonetheless, Johnnie fondly describes the teachers who made learning fun and who helped him ignore the students’ negative attitudes toward him.

When asked to help search for summer opportunities for some of the children, Jill and the volunteers worked to find permanent placements in special schools for the most exceptional shelter children. Milton Hershey School (MHS) stood out as a potentially exceptional opportunity for Johnnie. This school, which at that time had a six billion dollar endowment—an amount surpassed by only six U.S. universities—exists solely for the education of economically disadvantaged students who are endowed with at least average intellectual capacity and emotional health.

After he entered adolescence, along with his friends, Johnnie ceased to attend the Writers’ Center Comprehensive Literacy Project. The volunteers realized only too well that their efforts were a race against time. If Johnnie did not get into a competent residential program, they feared he would be lost in the maze of problems that beset many homeless children. In fact, around a decade later, when most of the volunteers’ children were in college or looking for jobs, Johnnie would observe that almost all of his Pullman friends were either dead or in jail.

Because he and his mother had moved so much and his family’s records had been thrown out by the Pullman, the process of getting Johnnie admitted to Milton Hershey took over a year. The documents required for admission to Milton Hershey included transcripts from all schools that he had attended, his birth certificate, the original copy of his parents’ divorce decree, and health records. The only existing copy of the divorce decree was illegible and, according to the Milton Hershey School admissions’ office, unacceptable. Jill subsequently determined that the divorce attorney for Johnnie’s parents had died, and that all of his records were gone. After a great deal of effort, she located and contacted the correct court in Oklahoma to obtain the documents. Finding all the schools that Johnnie had attended and getting them to fax his transcripts was another trying experience, and eliciting the cooperation of the Pullman administration was even more exasperating.

In the early spring of 1999, Johnnie secured an interview date with Milton Hershey. Arranging for transportation was onerous because the shelter was required by law to transport Johnnie in a van accompanied by a member of the shelter’s staff. Anything that was not within the usual Pullman protocol required Herculean organizational effort. The interview would take an entire day and included intelligence testing and a campus visit. Johnnie had to go to Hershey, Pennsylvania, the day before the interview and spend the night. Unfortunately, after all the arrangements were made, he was sick, and the visit had to be rescheduled. However, after his rescheduled interview, Johnnie successfully passed a battery of tests and was admitted.

What should have begun a new chapter in a significant collaboration between the Writers’ Center, the Pullman, and MHS—and what could have been a model for other Pullman students and other shelters—instead lead to the dissolution of the Writers’ Center Comprehensive Literacy Project. By the beginning of August, 1999, Jesse had ended up in jail again for petty theft, and Johnnie was living with “Aunt Sarah” and her ten children at the Pullman. Jill and other literacy project volunteers were shocked to discover that the Pullman director had no idea that Johnnie was living with another family at the shelter while Jesse was in jail. According to the Pullman director, when Jill went in to discuss his imminent admission to Milton Hershey School, Johnnie would have to leave the shelter the next day, and he would be taken into possession by Westchester County’s Department of Social Services (DSS) if no willing relative could be found to house him. The volunteers knew that if this occurred, Johnnie’s chance to enter Milton Hershey would evaporate.

When Johnnie was invited to stay with Jill’s family, the director merely stated, “Don’t go there.” She added that the entire shelter administration was participating in a retreat the next day, and no one would be available to assist with determining Johnnie’s fate. Since all other staff from the Pullman would be out of touch at their retreat, the Pullman administrators told Jill that she could talk only with Jesse, who was in jail, and with Jesse’s social worker.

During this period, Johnnie was visibly upset with his mother for jeopardizing his chances of escaping from the Pullman. Jill found out that the prison administration where Jesse was incarcerated permitted visits by specific people in the facility on certain days. On the following day, when teachers were allowed in, she was able to convince prison officials to put her name on the visiting list. Her husband, an attorney, drew up legal documents transferring temporary custody, with Jesse’s agreement, to either a relative or, in case no relative could be found, to Jill. A witness accompanied Jill to the county jail.

When they finally got past the guard and gained entry to the prison, they met Jesse in a bare room, adorned only with a table and a few chairs. Told that she needed to locate one of Johnnie’s relatives, Jesse said that the relative with whom Johnnie had stayed during her last imprisonment no longer resided in the region, and that she did not know of any others nearby. She was vehemently opposed to the idea of Johnnie being taken into possession by the County Department of Social Services, and she signed all of the documents transferring temporary custody to Jill so that Johnnie could get to Milton Hershey’s orientation on time.

After speaking to his social worker, Jill arranged to pick up Johnnie at the Pullman. Both of Jill’s children had engaged in volunteer work at the shelter, and Johnnie had become familiar with them over the last few years. After reaching the shelter, Jill, Johnnie, and two other Writers’ Center volunteers worked with several Pullman security guards to load up all of Johnnie’s and Jesse’s belongings into two cars. If they had not taken everything back to Jill’s house, the shelter administration would have, for the second time, thrown out all of their possessions, including important documents and other valuable items.

Sadly, Johnnie’s success in getting out of the Pullman to attend the Milton Hershey School irrevocably pitted the shelter administration against the Writers’ Center literacy project. Rather than facilitating the child’s attendance at the required late-summer orientation session, the Pullman administration made a choice that he should have been sent to DSS which would have robbed him of his chance to attend Milton Hershey. In an equally perverse, face-saving effort, instead of making simple, positive procedural changes in their own operations, the management would later dissolve the Center’s successful literacy project. The Pullman administrators’ punitive stance toward Johnnie corresponds precisely to the historical treatment of the homeless, especially of homeless children in the United States. These children are children left behind, with the alleged sins of their fathers and mothers, the sins of homelessness, visited upon them.

Returning from their retreat to discover that he resided temporarily and legally at Jill’s family home until his orientation, the administration contended that a breach in their protocol had occurred. Their Vice President for Shelter Administration called the Writers’ Center office and left a message with vague allegations of “serious” violations of unspecified “procedures.”

After hearing the phone message, an attorney representing the Writers’ Center wrote a letter to the Pullman administration in which, among other things, he pointed out, “Your complaint is indicative of a loss of sight of the fact that the presumptive mission of the organization for which you work is to protect people that our society has failed. Johnnie is one such person. He has promise. He is on the verge of being able to fulfill that promise.”

When they figured out that all the legal documents were in order, that Johnnie was in legal temporary custody, and that they couldn’t directly punish the Writers’ Center volunteer staff, the management made the foolhardy decision to disband the literacy project. This act had the clear, long-term effect of punishing the children at the shelter. As a result of what they labeled as a transgression of their protocol, they adopted a burdensome documentation requirement for all volunteers and created unsurpassable barriers to running what had previously been a well organized and successful program. They required that all volunteers, many of whom were local high school and college students, fill out a lengthy “Application to Volunteer” form that was as rigorous as applications used to screen for highly sensitive government positions. The Pullman administration also made all volunteers attend an orientation session in which each prospect was directed to refrain from getting “involved” in any way with clients (children) at the Pullman.

When the ten days of Johnnie’s temporary custody had passed and with the Milton Hershey orientation approaching, Jesse was able to plea-bargain to get out of jail. Jill and another volunteer drove Johnnie and Jesse to Hershey, Pennsylvania, to attend the orientation and to begin the seventh grade. Milton Hershey School provides invaluable opportunities for underprivileged children. At the time that he began classes, MHS served approximately 1,050 students. Through scholarships, the school offers education, housing, clothing, meals, medical and dental care, and recreational activities. Students from pre-kindergarten to the twelfth grade live in residences that include about ten students and their house parents. If they meet certain reasonable criteria, they even receive a full scholarship to college. The Beamers, both African Americans and graduates of the University of Pennsylvania, were Johnnie’s house parents for his entire stay at MHS.

For his first term, Johnnie achieved honor roll status and remained on the honor role throughout most of his MHS career. Perhaps, it was because he was already acclimated to living in institutional settings in much less enriched environments that he seemed to have less difficulty adjusting than many of the MHS students. In the first semester of his ninth grade year, he earned a 4.0 average. Over Johnnie’s six student years, Milton Hershey recognized Jill as his sponsor, an official category which allowed her to help with important matters such as where he stayed for vacations.

Shortly after Johnnie matriculated at Milton Hershey, his mother left New York and ended up back in Oklahoma, where some of her children and relatives lived. Since she was usually difficult to locate and did not regularly keep up with Johnnie, Jill was responsible for determining where he went on vacations and how he got to his destination. Frequently, Johnnie stayed with Jill’s family, or traveled with them on various vacations.

During two different summers, Johnnie worked at Hudson River Health Care, a nonprofit that provides health care to low income people. One summer, he traveled to Europe with People to People, a student ambassadorship program. The summer after his junior year, he spent five weeks in Spain studying Spanish and traveling with the Experiment in International Living, a worldwide program offering homestays and cross-cultural educational programs for high school programs. Whenever he returned to New York, Johnnie continued to stay with Jill’s family and visit his “Aunt Sarah” and her children.

Following his graduation from Milton Hershey, he entered at Xavier University, a historically black college in New Orleans. In 2010, Johnnie graduated with a degree in Psychology and planned to pursue a career in that field. Jill and another Writers’ Center volunteer attended his graduation. After that, he was employed by Hudson River Health Care, where he first did outreach work in Yonkers and Peekskill, New York. Inspired by Johnnie’s motivation and drive in getting into college and graduating, one of his surrogate “brothers,” Robert, became Stepinac High School’s 2010 Most Valuable Football Player (MVP) and won the AA league’s offensive MVP award. He was recruited by a number of universities including Stony Brook and University of Akron, and he now attends the University of Akron. Largely because of Johnnie’s example, Robert considers getting an education his most important mission. He was featured in a two-page article on the front page of the sport’s section of the local newspaper.

Johnnie was set up for betrayal by the system that purportedly exists to support homeless children. In order to save him from this punitive system, those who wanted to be his advocates had to go to extreme lengths, sometimes taking social and financial risks. When Johnnie and his mother did what any person would do in a similar situation, and what many researchers have documented that mothers and children naturally seek to create in homeless shelters—the establishment of alternative kinship relationships—they were punished by the tragically shortsighted administration at the Pullman. Jesse had gone to jail for theft directly related to her alcohol and drug addiction, and the shelter administrators took the unfortunate position of punishing Johnnie by attempting to prevent him from living with either of his alternative families for a brief period of time before going to the Milton Hershey orientation.

Many times before, Johnnie had lived with his “Aunt Sarah’s” family, and continuing to live with her would be a logical alternative that would not have changed his circumstances. Instead, the Pullman administration pretended that they had to adhere to strict protocol. They failed to understand the kinship system that actually existed in their own shelter, just as they were not successful in putting an end to the devastating corruption that rolled nightly through the shelter’s hallways right before their surveillance cameras.

Instead of fighting to create a more nurturing environment for families, the shelter chose to adhere to a set of rules that were not generally enforced. The Pullman administration was willing to punish Johnnie for making the very positive step of adopting alternative kinship relationships that allowed him to survive and even thrive, while many other teen-agers at the shelter, without anyone’s notice, turned to drug addiction, prostitution, and theft.

While the shelter administrators could have invited Johnnie back to talk to other Pullman children about his invaluable experience at the Milton Hershey School, they banned him from the shelter. Jill was also placed on a list of people prohibited from visiting the shelter.

Margo Taft Stever’s four poetry collections include The Lunatic Ball (Kattywompus Press, 2015); The Hudson Line (Main Street Rag, 2012; Frozen Spring (2002), (winner of the Mid-List Press First Series Award for Poetry) and Reading the Night Sky (winner of the 1996 Riverstone Poetry Chapbook Competition) (Introduction by Denise Levertov). She co-authored Looking East: William Howard Taft and the 1905 U.S. Mission to Asia, The Photographs of Harry Fowler Woods (Zhejiang University Press, 2012). The University of Cincinnati and Zhejiang University Press, Hangzhou, China, collaborated to publish an English-language version (Orange Frazier Press, 2015). Her articles and book reviews have appeared in the Connecticut Review, Minnesota Review, Rain Taxi Review, Home Planet News, New Delta Review, Calyx, and Poets & Writers, among other places. Her poems have appeared widely in literary magazines and in numerous anthologies including Blackbird, Salamander, Prairie Schooner, New England Review, Cincinnati Review, Rattapallax, Webster Review, Cadence of Hooves; Dire Elegies; Chance of a Ghost; The Breath of Parted Lips, Volume II; and No More Masks. She is the founder and of The Hudson Valley Writers’ Center and the founding and current editor of Slapering Hol Press (www.writerscenter.org).For more information, please see: www.margostever.com.