SPECIAL ASSIGNMENT: Thousands of homeless students in JCPS
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- Just having food to eat and a roof over their head is a real worry for thousands of JCPS students.
You can't tell by looking at him, but 10-year-old Dennis Burrage is dealing with tough times. In addition to keeping up with school, the fifth grader has other worries.
"Sometimes kids would make fun of us," Dennis said. "Sometimes we don't have as much money as them. We don't have as much things as them. I just try to ignore it."
Dennis is homeless. He goes to Camp Taylor Elementary which is a school full of need. Eighty-four percent of kids there receive free and reduced lunches. But Dennis knows he has it even harder since he doesn't have a place to call home.
"I really don't think anything, but we're going to be just like them soon," he said.
The JCPS Homeless Education Program says students like Dennis are part of a growing homeless population. About 12 percent of students in the district are homeless, which equals 12,000 boys and girls. Since August, the program has helped 4,000 students.
Family Resource Center Coordinator Stephanie Hooper at the school has lots of donated clothes to help students who have nothing.
"These are pants and I've got shirts, shoes, and coats," Hooper said. "We take so many things for granted...a child should not have to suffer these things, but it's just [the] times we live in."
Hooper has worked closely with Dennis, making sure he has basic necessities like new glasses since he had trouble seeing in class.
Dennis is very proud of his watch.
"My dad hadn't bought me anything for a while, and he has $100 dollars out of savings, so he decided to buy me something," he said. "This was only $8, so it's pretty cheap."
While other kids head home after school, Dennis takes a bus to the Volunteers of America Family Emergency Shelter.
Dennis' dad, Navy veteran Frank Burrage, has been raising his son alone since Dennis was a toddler. Frank says being homeless has made it even more difficult.
"It's been just me and him last the nine-and-a-half years," he said. "We're real close. It makes me proud. I went to a Fall Festival at his school. All the teachers were saying they always love Dennis. Makes me feel good, kind of chokes me up a bit."
They were evicted from a rental house, then stayed in hotels and at other homeless shelters, sometimes sleeping on the floor, and now they're living at the VOA.
Until they save $20 to buy their own key to their room, the Burrages say they have to ask someone from the front desk to let them in. The small room only has two bunk beds, a nightstand and all their belongings, which isn't much.
"What we could pack up here in two backpacks," Frank indicated. "We walked over here from Arthur Street."
"They've given us coats," he added. "We've acquired a bunch of bags. The blue bag came from the eye doctor. They filled it up with a bunch of stuff and gave it to Dennis."
At the VOA, you can see the changing faces of homelessness. Some are working parents who still can't make ends meet.
Candace Mcarthur has one of the biggest apartments, which is actually two small connected rooms she shares with her three children, ages 13, 11 and 5.
"It makes me feel like I don't do enough as a parent," McArthur said. "I work 50-60 hours a week, and I do all I can do to make sure my kids are taken care of."
VOA is the only shelter in Louisville of its kind, where families can stay together. But there is more need than available rooms.
Jenny Rectenwald, a VOA Spokeswoman said, "Our goal is to never have any families spend a night truly homeless on the streets living in a car. We do everything we can do to prevent that from happening."
Here families get three meals a day of donated food. A recent dinner included vegetable soup and bratwursts.
After dinner, there's a room staffed with JCPS employees who tutor the homeless kids and help them with their homework. But the goal for each of the families is to save money and find their own place. Dennis says after they save $1,000, things will get better.
Dennis says, "Then, they'll put us in transitional housing and those rooms have their own kitchen. They have their own living room and their own bathroom and a whole bunch of bedrooms."
Frank says, "It hasn't been that easy. I just put in thousands of applications online and it just wasn't working."
And when you ask Dennis if he wants anything, he never mentions toys or video games like a typical 10-year-old. Instead his thoughts are only about his dad.
"I've always wanted my dad to have his own car because it's been awhile since we've had one," he said. "He says that would help his dad be able to drive to a job."
The average stay at the VOA is 45 days, but for the McArthurs and Burrages, it's already been longer. Some families even stay six months because it took that long to save enough money to find stable, permanent housing.
McArthur says, "Sometimes when things aren't going the exact way they want it to, they say it's my fault that we are here, and that hurts the most."
As families work on a plan to become self-sufficient, they know there will be more hard days.
For Dennis, his inspiration and escape is school. His name is on a graduation hat that is up in the hallway, a tassel will be added every time he reaches another achievement.
But the ultimate achievement now is for him and his dad to not be homeless anymore.
Frank says, "A long time ago I figured out you can either sit around and mope about your situation, or you can better it. Looking on the bright side, I've got it a lot better than most people. A lot of people don't have the stuff we have."
Dennis says, "But we'll be out soon...maybe next April we'll have our own house."
Copyright 2013 WDRB News. All rights reserved.