Without a job, without a home and raising two children on her own, Katrice Lemons found the support and stability she needed for herself and her son and daughter with the help of the Battle Ground Public Schools Family and Community Resource Center.
Lemons, with her son Daelon Floyd and daughter Caelece Floyd, moved to Battle Ground about 10 years ago. The housing arrangement they had with a friend changed and they needed to move. They moved out of the Battle Ground community to stay with another friend who lived in Hazel Dell.
“That’s when we really got involved in this program because I didn’t have a car to transport the kids back and forth to school from Hazel Dell, nor did I know there was a program that would allow my kids to stay at their schools and take them for me and totally relieve that burden,” Lemons said. “Where we were living with the friend wasn’t the best environment. We weren’t on the streets, but it wasn’t ours. We were living with someone else and I knew there was a possibility that I could have my own place. We needed heaters and other things where we were staying because there wasn’t adequate heat. And sometimes food, because I wasn’t working at the time.”
The resource center made sure Daelon and Caelece could continue to go to their schools in Battle Ground by providing transportation from Hazel Dell. They received free breakfast and lunch as well as clothes and school supplies when necessary. This allowed Lemons to focus on finding a job and having dinner ready for her children when they got home.
“Love doesn’t come on the self, but we get that too. Just having a place we can go to that’s warm, open, loving and non-judgemental,” she said. “It feels good to walk into an office and ask for help and people aren’t rude to you. They listen and try to problem solve my next steps of where I should go. And they make sure I feel safe and get some type of help before I leave. I don’t walk in and walk back out still feeling helpless without an answer to my problem.”
As the family started to establish stability, Daelon discovered his calling as a basketball player. He graduated from Battle Ground High School in 2017 and is currently attending Lewis and Clark College in Portland on a full scholarship. Caelece is ready to begin her junior year of high school in the Battle Ground school district.
Lemons is also making big changes. Inspired by her children, she is going back to college. She dreams of building a home that has a swing set, a swimming pool and everything her children always wanted. All of this came out of a hopeless situation nearly a decade ago.
“I just started working on myself and working with people, and things have just happened,” Lemons said. “We have a beautiful home. My children, I hope, feel secure and feel like they have stability.”
A helping hand
Lemons thanks Family and Community Resource Center coordinator Lydia Sanders, specialists Martha Bellcoff and Jessica Erradi, and secretary Linda Storm for their dedication to students and families struggling with homelessness in the Battle Ground School District. The center has helped thousands of people since it opened in October 2016.
Sanders says there are two federal definitions of homelessness. The common definition is people who live without a home and sleep outside or in a car. Public schools are required to use the McKinney-Vento definition of homelessness. According to Sanders, this law states that if a student is lacking a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence, they qualify as living in a homeless situation. She explains that the majority of these students identified as homeless are living in a “doubled up” type of situation where they are staying with friends or family.
“If we can help those folks get back on their feet at this stage, it will allow the housing programs to focus on those who are living on the streets,” she said.
The number of homeless students in Battle Ground is growing. During the 2016-17 school year, the center served 319 homeless students, had 941 visitors and took 5,978 phone calls. The next school year, those numbers increased to 361 homeless students, 1,917 visitors and 9,294 phone calls.
Evergreen and Vancouver school districts have over a thousand homeless students. According to the Council for the Homeless, a total of 2,593 households in Clark County were homeless in 2017. This included 871 families with children and 42 veteran families.
Sanders has been with the Battle Ground district since 2005. She believes in empowering people who come to the center for help, not enabling them.
“A lot of us think, this is ‘those people.’ This is ‘those homeless people.’ This is ‘those people with problems.’ But I have worked with people over the years who come from wealthy and successful families and who are doing amazing things now after losing everything. Many of those families are back now to help us help others,” Sanders said. “I have to really argue the point that it’s not just an us and them issue. This is something that can happen to any of us. How many of us are just one or two paychecks away from it happening?”
She adds that work wages are not keeping up with rising rent and living costs. People are also losing their jobs. Sanders sees this cycle happening over and over again.
“There is a solution that doesn’t require an act of congress to solve the homeless problem in Battle Ground. It requires us to understand it and to be involved in some way. Programs don’t solve social problems. People solve social problems,” Sanders said. “Everybody can help in some tiny little way, whether that’s donating supplies or volunteering their time. Anyone can help. And that is what can solve homelessness in Battle Ground.”
Sanders has learned a lot from developing the guidelines for this resource center and is not afraid to “get real” by sharing her own story of being homeless.
“As a kid I slept behind the grocery store, lived in tents and poverty was a way of life. I also bounced around the foster care system for seven years, so I understand that part of it,” Sanders said. “What trauma and poverty do to students is going to affect them for a long time. My personal motivation for doing what we do is to help them at a very young age to be able to break that cycle.”
Sanders credits the Battle Ground School District staff she has worked with and friends who have become family for supporting her throughout the process of ending that cycle in her life.
“I’ve been homeless and know what it feels like to be hopeless,” she said. “When you’ve lived through the desperation of survival, it teaches you a whole new level of need. My challenging background gave me the insight I needed to help families leave poverty behind. There are commonalities I share with many of the families I’ve worked with for the last 13 years.”
Steps to success
Sanders and her staff keep the inner workings confidential between the students and parents who come to the resource center for help.
“We find out what they need, we put it into our system, it goes over to our clothes closet and then it gets delivered confidentially to that student usually within two or three days at their school,” Sanders said. “It looks like parents just dropped off a bag of clothes that day. Nobody else needs to know. That’s done strategically to protect our students and to protect their families.”
The center also has a “Skills of Success” wheel of resources to help parents enroll their children in school, search for a job, write a resume and more.
“What this does is it walks them through those steps, including all the questions they need to ask,” Sanders said. “We’re here to help them solve their own problems, not solve their problems for them. Because then we are enabling them and not empowering them. It is 100 percent about empowerment and about achieving independence.”
Besides donating food, clothes and supplies, Sanders says the most important way people can help at the center is by becoming a mentor. She provides all the training necessary. She knows it can be intimidating, but it can also be life changing for a student in need.
“We can’t provide these services without the support and contribution from so many volunteers from our Battle Ground community,” Sanders said.
“My motivation is to see that magic happen for them because I’ve lived it,” she added. “I know what it feels like to believe that you are a complete and total failure to making that transition to a capable, successful, independent human being.”
A basketball dream
Daelon Floyd excelled on the basketball court at Battle Ground High School, but his teammates and classmates probably didn’t know his life was so unstable at home.
“Regardless of what we have been through, you just have to keep pushing forward. Just keep reminding yourself this will pass,” he said. “I didn’t know where life was going to take me. I always say trust the process. Just hold the vision. You know what you want from yourself. You know what you expect. You know what you deserve. Use basketball as an outlet to explore that.”
Playing basketball every day and being around the right people at school helped Floyd achieve success and not stray away from that hardworking path. He thanks his youth and high school coaches for becoming the father figures he needed.
“My AAU coach was always there for me when I didn’t have a ride to the games or I couldn’t afford the hotels when we played in tournaments. My high school coach was always there for me when I couldn’t afford the basketball shoes or he would pick me up when I needed a ride to school,” Floyd said. “Those little things helped me get to where I needed to be, which is at a four-year university at Lewis and Clark, which I never thought I would be at.”
His first months at Lewis and Clark were scary. Floyd felt like a little fish in a sea surrounded by students who came from private high schools.
“I just have to remind myself, I’m smart enough to be here. I’m good enough to be here. I’m where I need to be at the right moment at the right time,” Floyd said.
“I just feel like basketball helped me shape myself into a wise, light-hearted, strong willed person to preserve through everything,” he added. “Just keep playing basketball. That’s something that I love to do. That’s something that helped me find my real friends, helped me build long time relationships with people and helped me get to a school that I really like.”
Asking for help
The Family and Community Resource Center in Battle Ground is ready to assist students and parents during the upcoming school year, but they have to be willing to ask for help. Lemons said that’s the toughest thing.
“America’s homelessness looks very different,” she described. “It’s not just the people with the shopping carts on the sidewalk. They’re homeless too and they need help too, but it’s the kid that sits silently in the classroom that doesn’t say anything that might not have gotten breakfast.
“You could feel really ashamed coming in here and asking for help,” she added. “No one wants to do that. It’s probably why half the people pushing carts on the streets are on the streets because they don’t believe anyone wants to help them.”
Lemons couldn’t ask for anything more for her son and daughter than to see their dreams coming true.
“Every mom wants their kids to have the best and sometimes that means asking for help,” she said. “These kids are on track to have amazing lives on their own and they have seen hardships and been through hardships and they’ve persevered. They don’t wear it on their sleeves, but they’re compassionate to a person that they know is in their situation. And that is priceless because they will always be a person that’s going to always pay it forward and help someone else because they were helped.”