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The Wieczorek family. Photo: Sarah Harris
The Wieczorek family. Photo: Sarah Harris

Desiree's story: Your questions answered on student homelessness

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Last week we brought you the story of 16-year-old Desiree Wieczorek. Desiree's a 10th grader at Parishville-Hopkinton Central School. For about five months last year, she and her family were homeless. They lived outside, in the woods. And they're not the only ones: there were over 3,200 homeless kids in the North Country last year.

Desiree's story went viral last week. It was seen by tens of thousands of people and generated a lot of questions about homelessness in the region. Sarah Harris and Martha Foley answered some of those questions in a conversation this morning. A list of resources is also below.

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Reported by

Sarah Harris
Reporter and Producer

Martha Foley: How did Desiree and her family react to the story?

Sarah Harris: Well, I think it can be pretty strange, having your personal life, your family story, go viral. All of a sudden the public knows all about a really tough time. I went to the Wieczoreks' house earlier this week. I listened to the story with them, which was neat. They say they hope people can learn from their story, that it will help others. They're keeping their heads high and ignoring some of the uglier comments made on the internet. And already, the story has had some positive effects in their community.

Desiree says she was helping an elderly lady in town who needed a hand and the woman recognized her from the story and told her she was brave. Kids at school have been talking about the Wieczoreks. They've been asking Desi and her siblings a lot of questions. Desiree listened to the first story in one of her morning classes. She cried, a lot of kids cried, the teacher cried. It's been empowering for her to claim that time and be able to talk about it.

Desiree says having the story air has "taken a lot off my shoulders."

"'Cause like people in Parishville-Hopkinton Central School used to be judgmental and now they're not anymore," she says. "This girl named Taylor Scovil came up to me after she listened to the story and told me that I was her idol. And that I was the strongest person in Parishville."

MF: As you reported last week, it was the school – specifically, the two women who work in the guidance office, who helped the family find a house. But what role did social services play in the Wieczoreks' story?

SH: When the Wieczorek kids first enrolled at Parishville-Hopkinton it was guidance counselor Melissa Schudder's job to get a sense of a their living situation and their family situation. She's a mandatory reporter, and if she saw any signs of negligence or abuse she would have to call child protective services.

But she didn't. She says that as she talked to the kids, it became clear that while their living situation wasn't stable, their family situation was. The kids, she says, were well cared for, and the family was doing the best they could.

Melissa Scudder did call social services to see what help was available to the family. She and Geri Lynn Wilson, guidance secretary, helped connect them to different agencies. Desiree's stepmom and dad, Missy and Kenny, applied for assistance. In order to get help with rent, they needed a landlord certificate, so Geri Lynn and Melissa helped them find a person who'd be willing to rent to them. They're now receiving assistance and have attended job training and classes.

MF: There were over 3,200 homeless kids in the North Country last year. But not all of them lived in the woods, like Desiree.

SH: That's right. I think it's important to understand that there are many ways to be homeless. In a rural place, homelessness looks really different than in a city. In the North Country, the vast majority of homeless students are doubled up – meaning that they've moved in with another family. Maybe they've had a fire and are bunking with grandma. Maybe they've been evicted, and are living with mom's boyfriend. That can mean maybe that the space is crowded and noisy. Maybe a child is sleeping on a blow-up mattress. Even though they're housed, they're homeless.

Homelessness can also mean living in a motel or a shelter or a car. Children who are unaccompanied, who don't live with their parents, who couch surf and move from house to house, are also homeless.

Desiree's story is a little different because of the fact that they lived in the woods. But even then, Desiree's extended family owns that property. So homelessness doesn't necessarily fit a tidy economic mold.

Another thing that's different about Desiree's story is that she has a really supportive family. And that's not always the norm. Poverty, substance abuse, domestic violence, sexual abuse, mental health issues, can all happen alongside homelessness. And there are kids living in much messier situations than Desiree's.

MF: What are schools required to do when they discover that a child is homeless?

SH: The McKinney-Vento Act is a federal law stating that homeless students have the same right to education as any other child. So once a child is deemed homeless, it's the district's responsibility to bus the child – either to their old district, or their new one, whichever they choose. Homeless students can enroll in school without identifying documents and paperwork. And they quality for free and reduced lunch. And it also means making school a safe, comfortable place for kids.

When I spoke to Melissa Scudder, she said that depending on how a kid is homeless, the help can look different. She says the school's given gas certificates to homeless kids who are shutting between work and school. For others maybe it's helping with financial aid paperwork after they've graduated. And for others maybe it's providing those basic necessities – clothes, food, and school supplies – that enable them to learn throughout the school day.

I think it's safe to say that Melissa Scudder and Geri Lynn Wilson did go above and beyond in their help for the Wieczoreks.

"For me it's me as a Christian, me as a human being, what I have to do," Melissa Scudder says. "So for me I almost feel like it is required to go above and beyond because that's what the need is. And we have so many different situations here not just Desi's situation and we try to do the same for all of them."

"People just need people to be kind," adds Geri Lynn Wilson. "And it's not that hard to be kind. It's a lot less effort to be kind than it is to be negative. Kindness should just come naturally and it does, here at this school."

MF: What's next for the Wieczoreks?

SH: Well the kids are all in school. Desi's aunt is a college student. Her dad and stepmom are looking for work. They've a hard time finding work here – Kenny says he thought he'd be able to move up and find a job and place live last summer, and that obviously didn't happen. He says he's put in over 50 applications since they moved here.

"I'm hoping to get a farm job. That's what I would like," Kenny says. "I would like to actually be able to milk cows because I love doing the dairy aspect of working. Unfortunately right now there's nothing available."

Kenny's wife Missy says she hopes to go back to school to be a nursing assistant.

"I have to figure out how I'm going to figure out how to pay for that as well as make sure there's somebody here for them if he starts working."

The family says they're really glad to be in Parishville. They love the community, and the stability that it's brought them. They're looking for work and hope to be self-sufficient. So they're getting there.

Resources

Here's a list of the McKinney-Vento Act liaisons at schools throughout New York state.

The organizations that helped Desiree:

Massena independent living center: http://milcinc.org/services/solutions-to-end-homelessness/

St. Lawrence County Community Development Program Neighborhood Centers: http://slccdp.org/programs/neighborhood-centers

North Country County Social Services Agencies:

St Lawrence: http://www.co.st-lawrence.ny.us/departments/socialservices/

Franklin: http://franklincony.org/content/Departments/View/25.

Franklin County homeless housing help: http://franklincony.org/content/Departments/View/25:field=services;/content/DepartmentServices/View/76

Clinton: https://www.clintoncountygov.com/Departments/DepartmentOfSocialServices/SocialServicesListOfServices.html

Essex: http://www.co.essex.ny.us, find homeless services under "temporary assistance" tab

Hamilton: http://www.hamiltoncountyhhs.org/social-services

Jefferson: http://www.co.jefferson.ny.us/index.aspx?page=115

Lewis: http://lewiscountyny.org/content/Generic/View/51

Warren: http://www.warrencountyny.gov/socserv/

Oswego: http://www.co.oswego.ny.us/dss.shtml

Saratoga: http://www.saratogacountyny.gov/?page_id=1573

Washington: http://www.co.washington.ny.us/departments/dss/dss.htm

Oneida: http://ocgov.net/socialservices

Fulton: http://www.fultoncountyny.gov/index.php?word=departments/socialservices.php

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