Five years ago, the Dallas Independent School District opened its first drop-in center for students at North Dallas High School. The campus sits near homeless shelters and pricey apartments, and has one of the largest homeless high school populations in the city.
Since then, high school drop-in centers have multiplied across the school district to 20.
“No matter which high school you go to, you’re going to find disenfranchised teens for one reason or another,” said Mark Pierce, who manages Dallas ISD’s drop-in centers.
Pierce has worked with Dallas homeless students for years and said some kids get kicked out of their homes because they’re in gangs; others because they’re gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender. He said there can be many reasons.
“They’re not living at home because they can’t get along with their family, or they’re staying with friends, or they may have lost their family,” Pierce said. “You may even have students whose entire family is on the verge of homelessness, and we can help with those situations as well.”
These drop-in centers, with help from the group Focus on Teens, provide breakfast, juice and snacks, along with other essentials like socks and shirts, toothpaste and deodorant. While Dallas ISD has expanded its drop-in centers, Pierce said there’s more to do.
“I believe in a drop-in center in every high school in the country,” he said.
Newest center in East Dallas
The district’s newest drop-in center opened in Bryan Adams High School in East Dallas in late September. For the hour before classes start on Fridays, a room in the school serves as the drop-in center. On opening day, there weren’t just doughnuts and coffee, but shelves of packaged foods and a stack of backpacks.
Jody Martin, the parent liaison at Bryan Adams, was afraid no one would show up on the first day. She was wrong; about a dozen checked it out.
“That in itself says that they’re curious and they’re going to tell their friends,” Martin said. “I mean, even if it’s a kid just hearing that, ‘Hey, there’s, you know, muffins and apple juice,’ and they’re going to know there are resources out there.”
In the weeks leading up to the opening, Martin put the word out around school. Senior Kameron Williams heard about it and thinks it’s a pretty big deal.
“It’s used to help students out that are not usually self-sufficient, like their parents don’t help them out or anything,” Williams said. “It also helps them if they need food or they can’t stay with their friends, then help them go to a homeless shelter. They also provide different stuff for the students.”
Williams needed those services recently. His father has been out of the picture for years. Relations with his mother got so bad that she kicked him out of the house. He got help through Child Protective Services and became his own legal guardian. He’s now back home with his mother and dreams of college.
“I am shooting for something outside of the state,” Williams explained. “Something new, pretty much. I’ll come back; it’s just that I need to leave for a little bit.”
Knowing someone cares
Students said these drop-in centers help them stay in school.
Pierce said that’s because they’re safe, welcoming places with school staff that struggling students learn to trust. Martin experienced her own troubles growing up in Australia. She wishes she’d had a drop-in center as a kid.
“I didn’t have support at home,” Martin said. “So it would have been good to know there was a drop-in center with resources for me.”
For her, work in the drop-in center is personal.
“It hits close to home, you know? I see these kids. Sometimes it’s a matter of they just need to know someone cares because sometimes you do. You just need to know someone cares because you don’t have that at home,” Martin said.
Mike Moran, assistant principal at Bryan Adams High, said the drop-in center helps meet the needs of students, many of whom never tell anybody they’re homeless or struggling. Based on frequent absences, he suspects about 200 Bryan Adams kids may need help, though only a quarter of them say anything up front.
“A lot of times it is revealed that there’s a temporary living situation, they’re in a motel, this has been moved, they’re now staying with an aunt and uncle. Or even in worst-case scenarios, people have gotten deported, they’re trying to make ends meet and are having a hard time making it at the school. Just through those anecdotal conversations, we know that there’s more than 50 students,” Moran said.
That’s just the case at one Dallas high school, which explains why the district will open up five more drop-in centers by January.