Raleigh, N.C. — Last year, 2,757 homeless children attended Wake County public schools. Among those who call homeless shelters their home are 10-year-old “C” and his 4-year-old brother "Nalo," who live at the Raleigh Rescue Mission with their mother, Jenn.
“The most important thing for me is for me and my children's safety,” said Jenn, who asked that their last names not be used.
The 34-year-old single mother left her family and friends in a small Mississippi town last summer and moved to North Carolina’s capital, a place she once visited when she was younger, hoping to find more opportunity in a bigger city.
“I thought it was just best that me and boys just move on with our lives and see what's best for us,” she said. “You got to be something your children can look up to no matter what predicament you're in.”
Without the help of her sons’ fathers, who are “where they’ve always been – somewhere else,” according to Jenn, she rented an apartment in Raleigh. She lost it when the rent went up, so she moved her family to the Raleigh Rescue Mission.
Each morning, she rushes to get her sons awake, fed and ready for school. They have their own room at the rescue mission – a simple room with white walls, white floors and enough beds for each of them – but they share a bathroom and cafeteria with other residents.
After breakfast, Jenn takes her sons to the front steps of the Raleigh Rescue Mission, which serves as their bus stop. The Wake County Public School System works with the rescue mission and other shelters to help identify and support homeless students.
Olds Elementary Assistant Principal Joy Robinson says a common challenge is helping homeless students – like C, who is a third-grader at the school – catch up, keep up and beat the stigma of their situation.
“What we're trying to do is basically provide them with a school home that they can call their own, that they can get used to so they can find security,” Robinson said. “What the public needs to know is that you can no longer just look at a particular child or a particular family and tell that they’re homeless.”
Mother: ‘You have to be positive, you have to keep your faith’
With her children at school, Jenn concentrates on getting to work. She has no car, so she takes city buses to her job at a Subway on Hillsborough Street, where she serves up sandwiches and kind words to her customers, often asking about their day and how they are doing.
After her shift, she gets back on the bus, picks up her boys and makes her way back to the rescue mission for a quiet family dinner in a small side room at the shelter, where it’s more private than the mission’s cafeteria.
Privacy can be hard to come by in the shelter, which bustles with activity, including children playing games and adults meeting in support groups.
“I would (like) a little more privacy, because when I get distracted from my inventions, there's going to be some drama,” C said. “I like doing a lot of things, like building paper airplanes."
“That's good, but you know studying is mandatory,” his mother replied, urging him to work on his multiplication homework.
Like many parents, Jenn wants her sons to get a good education – something she is still working on herself. After moving to Raleigh, she took a few hospitality classes at Wake Technical Community College and says she hopes to one day manage a hotel and have “a better job (and) a better life for me and the boys.”
Lynn Daniell serves as executive director at the Raleigh Rescue Mission and helps many families, including Jenn’s.
“When a child walks in the door, first of all, I'm thinking, ‘How did this happen? I mean, how could this kind of thing happen?’ And then, the next mode is, ‘What can we do about it?’” Daniell said.
When he looks at Jenn, Daniell says he first sees “a mom who cares about her kids, but also someone who wants to do things different.”
Jenn is appreciative of the roof over her head and the food for her family, which the rescue mission provides, and says she doesn’t want anyone to feel sorry for her.
“I don't feel sorry for myself, because I know I have a strong will to do better,” Jenn said. “You have to be positive. You have to keep your faith.”
If you'd like to help:
Jenn's family is one of many being helped by the Raleigh Rescue Mission and the Women's Center of Wake County. The Raleigh Rescue Mission accepts donations over the phone at 919-828-9014 from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday. Donations can also be made online.