Farai Musari Works at the Ark in Baltimore

Farai reveals what he learned about poverty and homeless children from working and playing with young friends at the Ark.

A purely intellectual understanding of poverty tends to view being in poverty as an unfortunate condition for “some” people and to put these “people” in categories. These “people” are often reduced to research subjects in the popularized anti-poverty war, yet my most important lesson throughout my eight weeks working at The ARK was that there is no particular face that is exclusive to poor persons. As elementary as that seems, I had read so much about homelessness—the one aspect of poverty I had not personally experienced—to the extent that I had painted a grossly inaccurate image of homelessness in my mind. Fortunately, the image –one likened to that of a group of renegades, for lack of a better word, who have literally given up on life—was, fortunately, highly deceptive. It was dehumanizing image that put to naught the worth and hard work of the people I spent my summer serving.

The ARK, a state accredited preschool serving children whose parents deal with homelessness, was so rich in experiential lessons regarding the many difficulties of those trapped in poverty in Baltimore and America as a whole. I was immediately confronted by the reality that most of the kids we were serving were African-American. I convinced myself that this was expected since Baltimore is a predominantly African-American city, besides the sad reality of the prevalence of poverty in this particular demographic cohort. My next observation was that most of the kids dressed very nicely—which was very comforting—but after a while I started noticing small differences in the ways they dressed. While most of the kids had nice clothes, one or two of them came to school with clothes that were clearly not clean. These small things quickly added up and I realized the “cycle” that Michael Harrington referred to was not a myth. Our families were trapped in an unending string of challenges, including keeping up with two or three minimum wage jobs and basic things like doing laundry outside of a home. It did not take me too long to realize just how hard it was for them to snap out of this ordeal by themselves.

Our main focuses at The ARK were language development, citizenry training, and a health partnership with the organization Healthcare for the Homeless in order to ensure that the children have access to comprehensive health care. Working with these children on a personal level enabled me to learn that even though they have needs like any ordinary four year-old, being homeless doubled the intensity of the trauma induced by poverty. To counter this trauma, The ARK places huge emphasis on dealing with the physical aspect of the children`s health by providing nutritionally balanced meals, supplying language therapists for the kids who need them, and ensuring that all of the children have timely dental and physical checkups by medical professionals.

To put this trauma of coping with poverty and homelessness in perspective, most kids at The ARK (definitely not all of them) would not politely ask for something when they wanted it. The norm seemed to be a demand in the form of “gimme that” or a simple shove to the other person with the desired item, which suddenly made the item fair game. Such things, which I first blamed on poor parenting, were, as I later learned, coping mechanisms to counter their limited vocabularies. Many parents lacked the educational resources and time required to stimulate the vocabulary of their children. As my supervisor mentioned, the parents were unable to enforce strict rules for their children because of a lack of privacy and independence in the shelters, and these circumstances worsened the usual behavioral and attention problems of children. These children, like all children, needed stable, set routines in order to grasp concepts, yet because of the transitory existence associated with being homeless, they were off to a bad start. After discovering so much talent and character in these four year-olds, amidst their behavioral challenges, I was left to wonder just how far they could make it in schools. We have, unfortunately, been socialized to demonize anything that hints of rowdiness, but these kids just need a little more patience for opportunities to develop their significant talents. Thanks to the perceptiveness of the staff at The ARK, I found myself remembering the four year old me, and praying that my presence at The ARK would be a blessing for some of the children.

During my time in Baltimore I learned from the positive care and opportunities The ARK provided homeless families, but I also learned that some of our practices for housing homeless families limit opportunities for the children. The best part of my typical day was playing outside with the children. They seemed free, and they talked more than they did in our tiny classroom. Being the only male adult at The ARK on most days gave me a special connection to the kids. I was a friend, a football player, a runner, and whatever else they needed. While we sat down and talked some children told me things they did with their parents, and I realized that most of these kids were in single-mother headed families. Before long, I found out that homeless shelters separated families based on sex for safety reasons—an innocent and perhaps necessary action in order to prevent sexual assault. Nevertheless, this seemingly overused policy had huge effects on the psychosocial development of some of these children by depriving them access to one of their parents. Worse still, do we defeat the primary purpose of shelters by almost enforcing single-parent families when we know that they are more prone to poverty than two parent families? I realize that some fathers can be predators on their spouses and children, but is the shelter system flawed in its indiscriminate decision to separate homeless families? As noted at the outset, I learned to desist from intellectual generalizations about homeless families and children through learning that not all homeless fathers are sexual predators, as is wrongly conveyed by mainstream literature.

The ARK was a place for first-hand lessons, and I learned the need to remove labels. Poverty is something that anyone is liable to seek, yet it seems to affect the most innocent of all: the children. I was moved by their will and their aptitude, yet I realized how disadvantaged they are. Without intervention, all these children would end up in Title I schools, with unmotivated teachers, and with parents who are stuck in an unending cycle of poverty. Thanks to The ARK, I had an opportunity to experience the troubles of one group at the base of the economic ladder. It is my duty, now, to challenge these unfortunate aspects of our society and advocate for better policies that will expand opportunities and remove barriers for homeless families, especially children, to realize their potential. I carried from The ARK the importance of positive support for social function, cognitive development, and good health; and I learned from my conversations with the children and from observing them that we should consider revising practices for housing homeless families that unnecessarily disrupt the lives and opportunities for the children.