David Nixon has been homeless on and off for more than half of his life so far.
This summer, the 21-year-old was living in an acquaintance’s home. A former ward of the state, Nixon had been evicted from his home in January after an agency that helped him with his rent stopped making payments. He goes to school at Community College of Philadelphia and works at the airport, and hopes to move into his own place one day.
“I first noticed I was poor…” started Nixon, before beginning a new thought.
“When you fight with roaches and mice about whose food it is, that’s when you know you’re poor. Or when you turn on the lights and play the roach game by killing as many roaches as you can before they all run away, that’s when you know you’re poor. When you have to go to the store and take what you want — you got to get these bags of chips, got to get this juice and candy, that’s when you know you’re poor. When you see your mom or somebody stuff something in you and tell you to ‘shut up’ and walk out, that’s when you know,” he said in finishing.
Nixon recalls wandering around on his own as a young boy, “staying [anywhere] I could fit in — whether it was a community garden, living in abandoned homes, sleeping on rat piss-infested mattresses” while his mother sought crack-induced highs. He has never met his father.
He lived in 15 foster homes and was jailed twice for selling drugs, all by the age of 19, he said. He attended public schools but ended up graduating high school in a juvenile detention facility.
“I always knew that if I held school down, I could get past people seeing what was wrong with me,” Nixon said. “I had perfect attendance. My grades have always been good, always. I always had a C or better. It was possible because I never wanted to be a failure.”
Tamarra Cannon, a teacher in a school with a high number of low-income students, knows what life has been like for Nixon.
“Me and my mom were in a shelter in different parts of our lives. I feel like the [impoverished] kids — they are the ones that need someone invested in their education, the most,” she said. “But there are few teachers that can work through the anger of the students and parents for them to succeed.”
Cannon says she has seen the anger and behavioral problems that come from the trauma of poverty in children as young as kindergarten age.
“My kindergartners are cursing, they know how to fight, [saying] ‘You’re not going to disrespect me.’ They are a product of their environment,” Cannon said.
“Last year was a really rough year,” she recalled. “I had a lot of kids dealing with anger issues. It took a while for me to constantly talk to them and give them tools to calm themselves down — a calming corner (where) I put up yoga mats (for them to kick the wall). After lunch, we would meditate — we would sit quietly, doing breathing exercises.”
About 400,000 Philadelphia residents — including roughly 37 percent of the city’s children under the age of 18 — live below the federal poverty line, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts’ 2017 report, “Philadelphia’s Poor.” Blacks have the second highest poverty rate in the city at 30.8 percent, following Hispanics who come in at 37.9 percent.
Educators, elected officials and parents say poverty doesn’t mean students are destined to fail.
“It’s not that students living in poverty can’t learn,” but they have to depend more on school resources to bridge learning gaps, said Sharif El-Mekki, principal of Mastery Charter School-Shoemaker Campus and founder of The Fellowship: Black Male Educators for Social Justice.
And many schools in Philadelphia don’t have resources to offer.
“Certain districts in this state get two to three times more funding than kids in Philadelphia,” said El-Mekki, who has been working in schools in Philadelphia for more than 26 years.
Pennsylvania’s education funding formula is “the most inequitable in the nation,” said City Councilwoman Helen Gym. “It means our class sizes are higher, resources slimmer, we don’t fulfill curriculum mandates and we provide far less support and enrichment opportunities.”
“Affluent” families can make their own opportunities because they can afford to pay for specialized tutors and athletic programs,” El-Mekki said. “Doors are opened up widely for affluent people, while those doors are designed to remain permanently closed for people of color — unless someone helps them break them open.”
Such barriers, El-Mekki said, can be countered only by a concerted effort from everyone involved in education.
Gym called the inequity “a profound and outrageous injustice that should be a top priority for every elected official — especially our state legislature and Congress.”
Many teachers and parents have told Gym that schools need resources to help children and families deal with trauma, the councilwoman said.
“Poverty is not just a statistic. It’s a lived reality that can include deeply traumatic consequences — hunger, eviction, racism, utility shut offs, domestic violence, and illness and death,” Gym said. “Children in high poverty households are far more likely to experience traumatic incidents than children in wealthier communities.”
To that end, Gym said, she has worked on restoring nurses and counselors in public schools and doubling the number of social workers.
Gym said she also “established the first city fund to specifically address youth homelessness, including expanding the number of beds for homeless youth and providing services to connect young people to their families, to school, employment and mental health and counseling services.”
Irah Gardner, a mother of three boys who has experienced homelessness with her family, says support is crucial.
She and her mother didn’t have any assistance when she was a child. Since her mother was mentally ill, Gardner said, she stayed in foster homes as a youth. Gardner said she was kicked out of school and ended up at a school for youth with behavioral issues.
She’s trying to break the cycle with her boys by being involved with their schooling.
“We dealt with homelessness, different issues, personal issues that I had to seek help with. It’s been a struggle…but I did have support,” she said. “I think a little bit of everything plays a part, but parental involvement is definitely the key to a child’s success in school. If you keep good lines of communication open with the school and they see you want more for your child, the majority will meet you halfway. [But] a lot of time these parents have no form of support.”
Gardner recalled sending her eighth-grade son to a career exploratory program this summer. The program has been around for 20 years, but she’d never heard of it and only found out about it through a friend. She wondered why families don’t get more information on such programs, then answered that there are gaps on both sides. Even if a school offers certain opportunities or resources, she said, the parents have to be able to capitalize.
“You have children where parents are struggling to put food on the table, so how can they concentrate in school when they don’t know where their next meal is going to come from?” Gardner asked.
“Then you have kids with parents who are addicts. It’s not necessarily that it’s a lack of communication. It’s other factors involved and that I see firsthand. I have friends who have a lot of other stuff going on at home. So, if their child got their homework done is not on the list of priorities if they have other things going on hindering them in their everyday life right now.”
Stories like Gardner’s and Nixon’s seem to offer hope, but should not to be taken for granted, El-Mekki said, especially as they are more exceptions than the norm.
“There are many individuals who push through the cycle of poverty, but it’s dangerous for people to romanticize the struggle people go through to lift themselves up and simultaneously absolve people in power of the responsibility to fix the system that makes one group of people work twice as hard to get half as far,” El-Mekki said.
“We should definitely celebrate those individuals who push through [with] sheer determination and support, [but] we have to be careful because the oppressor will use the ‘Pull yourself up by the bootstrap’ mentality as reason not to provide equity and justice,” the charter school principal added.
El-Mekki said no one “should just be preaching to Black kids about working harder and ignoring the colossal injustice we are asking them to bear the brunt of.
“They’ve tipped the system to white people while they tell Black people, ‘Don’t make poor decisions.’ We need politicians, advocates, community members who are hell bent on ensuring wrongs are righted and injustice is replaced with justice,” he said.