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News & Music Contributors
Tue March 11, 2014
Pilot Program In Pierce County Helping Families Escape Homelessness
Across the country, more than one million kids may not know where they’re going to sleep tonight. It could be in a car, on a friend’s couch, in a homeless shelter, or even on the street.
In Washington state alone, there are more than 30,000 homeless children. And for these kids, getting their homework done is the least of their problems. Now a unique program out of Tacoma is trying to help those kids do better in school, one family at a time.
‘I Didn’t Know If We Were Going To Be Homeless’
Tameka Gantt lives in a cozy, four-bedroom Tacoma townhouse with her husband, Bobby, and children. Just four years ago, the home was a distant dream for the Gantts.
“It was pretty difficult. I didn’t know if we were going to be homeless, and we were just looking for other alternate routes,” said Bobby Gantt.
The Gantts and their four children had just moved from California with a minivan and the clothes on their back.
Bobby was working two part-time restaurant jobs to make ends meet. But he lost them both in the same week, and the family had no money to pay the rent on their small, two-bedroom apartment.
Bobby had trouble finding a new job. He didn’t graduate from high school, and has a criminal record from a drug offense he committed as a minor.
“We got a lot of nos. ‘No, no, no, no, no.’ Interviews, jobs. ‘Sorry, can’t hire you because of your record,’” said Bobby Gantt.
Then the Gantts learned about the McCarver Special Housing Program.
‘For Teachers, It’s Like Trying To Teach At A Bus Station’
The 2½-year-old program is a partnership between McCarver Elementary School in Tacoma and the local housing authority. It helps families like the Gantts find and pay rent on a new home.
Michael Power, the man behind the program, says there is nothing else like it in the whole country.
“It took us two years of full-time planning just to get this thing started, and we’re obviously learning as we go,” he said.
Power says McCarver serves a neighborhood that is generally low-income. And poverty causes many families to move in and out of the area.
“New kids come, then they leave, and it just turns over and over, and over again. For teachers, it’s like trying to teach at a bus station. Every time a bus arrives, you’ve got a whole new class,” said Power.
“Many of our behavioral challenges are a result of poverty and homelessness,” said Carol Ramm-Gramenz, McCarver’s school counselor and known throughout the halls as “Mrs. R.G.” “For kids who don’t know where they’re going to sleep at night, or don’t know where they’re going to be next month, the stress and anxiety that’s on their shoulders, they act it out.”
Giving Kids, Families Stability At Home
Ramm-Gramenz says the program works by giving these kids and their families a home and stability in an unstable world. That begins with subsidizing the family’s rent for five years. Beginning at 100 percent, the support decreases by 20 percent each subsequent year. At the end of five years, the subsidy stops.
This program was a lifeline for the Gantts. Three of their kids were already at McCarver when they lost their income, and the program stepped in to help.
And their children’s grades have reflected the benefits of the program since they enrolled.
“It changed big time,” said Bobby Gantt.
Room To Think About The Future
The Gantts’ 10-year-old daughter, Simya, says she loves reading. And math. And writing. But she’s especially excited about science.
On a recent day, she was investigating how fast a toy car can go around various racing tracks.
“When we start our investigation, we do questions and a prediction, and our materials and our procedures where we write our steps down,” she said.
Simya dreams of a future of stardom. One day, she hopes to be a singer and actress.
And with the fear of homelessness now gone, Simya’s parents say they can focus on their future, too.
They now have two more children. Tameka is a full-time student, working towards her bachelor’s degree in social work. And Bobby graduated from a culinary arts program, but put that career direction on hold when he got a full-time job at the post office.
“I’m doing a whole different profession, but it’s an accomplishment from a person who was a high school dropout,” said Bobby Gantt.
“It gave us real confidence like, ‘OK, we can do this now, because they’re here to help us,”’ said Tameka Gantt.
Right now, the housing program is assisting 42 families like the Gantts and more than 70 kids. The Tacoma Housing Authority pitches in most of the funding for the program with help from Pierce County and a nonprofit group called Building Changes.
A measure to replicate the program was introduced in the Legislature this year, this time funded by the state’s general fund. But it died early on in the session; there was no room in the budget. The bill’s sponsor says she will try again next year.