FIU alumna Beth Davalos MS ’94 leads a support network that brings hope to homeless children in central Florida.
Photos by Doug Garland ’10
Social worker Beth Davalos MS ’94 listens intently to the frantic mom on the line: “We’re staying at a camp site. I don’t have enough gas to make it home tonight!” Davalos scribbles down the woman’s number and her current location and interrupts, “It’s OK. Do you have a plan? I hear your urgency now is to get a gas card. I’ll call you back when I figure this out logistically.”
Davalos does have a plan, and a team, to help this mom and the other 762 families in distress.
Florida is “home” to a third of the nation’s homeless school-aged children. After the construction industry collapsed in the Sunshine State in 2008, many families found themselves falling behind on bills, literally one paycheck away from the streets.
This is where Davalos comes in. As the coordinator for the Families in Transition (FIT) Program for Seminole County Public Schools in central Florida, the FIU alumna works with more than 80 agencies and organizations as well as the community to get their basic needs met and provide opportunities for both the children and their families. In recognition of her work, she is receiving the 2013 Alumni Association Torch Award for Community Leadership.
Davalos says the solution to the homeless epidemic is to “invite more people into the process.” Started in 2003, Davalos’ FIT program creates wraparound support services; the program has been highly effective in Seminole County having helped more than 10,000 children.
Lorraine Husum Allen, director of the Florida Department of Education’s Homeless Education Program, says Davalos runs one of the model programs in the country. “What is so special about Beth is her dedication. She’s a tireless advocate to those children. Her awareness activity has ben wonderful.”
Last year, 60 Minutes aired two programs on Davalos’ work in Seminole County, bringing national attention to the child homelessness crisis. Nationwide, the problem is addressed through the federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, which requires school districts to have a liaison like Davalos to serve homeless children. For the school year 2010-11, Florida school districts identified some 57,000 children as homeless statewide.
The 60 minutes segment opened a lot of eyes. Before “Hard times generation: Homeless kids” aired, FIT had $20,000 in its bank account; after the show that balance jumped to $1.4 million – all from donations by individuals and companies wanting to help.
Davalos and her five-person staff work out of a 20-by-20 office at the edge of a middle school. A handful of desks are scattered around the room. A well-stocked pantry serves as the heart of the office, providing food, clothes and school supplies to cash-strapped families at a moment’s notice.
The staff spends most of its day following up on families they’ve helped. But when a team member gets a new call about a family in need, the phone tree is activated. First, do they have a place to stay? If not, they are placed in local motels where the children can still catch the bus to school. The program pays for a few weeks at a time. Davalos routinely checks in on the families for added help and to ensure they are keeping their end of the bargain – looking for a job, if one or both of the parents are unemployed. Seventy-five percent of the parents in the FIT program are unemployed or underemployed.
Next, the families are referred to support services like Christian HELP, which assists in finding jobs for the adults and The Sharing Center, which assists with basic needs such as food, clothing, bus tokens, costs of prescriptions, a place to shower and even haircuts.
Recently, FIT partnered with Northland Church in a program that pairs a volunteer with a family for 90 days. The families are guided through all the resources that are available to them. “We are really Beth’s hands and feet,” says Maria Penzes, an administrator at Northland.
The church is building housing for the poor and has offered the 37 families in the pilot program first dibs at a place. Davalos says this exemplifies what connections and strategic relationships can accomplish.
The value of collaboration has informed Davalos’ work ever since she completed her master’s thesis at FIU. Her research focused on the most effective ways to help homeless children.
“What I love about this is that there are answers! We can figure it out. We have enough resources to be able to do it,” says Davalos.
The Remington Inn
It’s the perfect storm. You fall behind on your light bill. Then the truck breaks down. The final blow: your husband breaks his leg and can’t work. Jennifer Byero can’t believe this is her story. She and her husband Gregg had struggled for a few years but they always got by. The family of five – which includes Alyssa, 13, Michael, 8, and Jason, 7 – first connected with Davalos when they needed help paying the light bill. After Gregg’s accident, FIT put them up in the Remington Inn – one of the least safe motels the program uses, admits Davalos. “There are stabbings here.”
“Sometimes it gets to you,” Jennifer says. “We probably wouldn’t had made it through without Beth. Her and the community help take a lot of stress off. I wouldn’t be able to think about what do we do next.” With the help of several programs, Jennifer has been studying to take the GED. And the Byero family, whose motel room is a safe haven for other kids staying at the motel, has been able to save money for a down payment on an apartment.
Denise Solomon has been sick with what she thinks is the flu for several days. She can barely speak. The light bothers her. But she stops to say hello to Davalos, who is dropping off a couple of Publix gift cards.
Solomon has been working at Winn-Dixie nine hours a week trying to bounce back after losing her house a year ago. She and her children lived with a neighbor for a while but eventually needed to move. Davalos says 70 percent of the homeless live with friends and family. This time is the most effective time to help a family, rather than waiting until they are on the street.
For Solomon, Davalos was the lifeline she needed. Her life was quickly deteriorating and someone gave her Davalos’ number. “If she hadn’t have called me back, I wouldn’t have anybody,” says Solomon tearing up. “You gave us a place to stay.” Davalos quickly interrupts and adds with an infectious smile, “But you know I have a team behind me, right?
“I want them to know this is from the community – folks that believe you can get through this,” she says.
Today, Davalos gives Solomon the number to The Sharing Center that will help her see a doctor.
The Cruz children are ambitious. Daughter Connie is in all Honors and AP high school classes; she sings in the choir and plays clarinet in the band; she wants to be a psychologist to help other children. A junior in high school, Jake wants to be a military man and is in ROTC.
Making minimum wage, the parents have always struggled to support the family of six.
They have had to give up a lot: the house they were renting was foreclosed on; their car broke down; their cat and two dogs were given away to shave expenses; all their stuff was thrown in storage. And Jake almost had to give up ROTC.
During one of Davalos’ visits, while making small talk, it came up that Jake had an ROTC event the following day but wouldn’t be able to participate because he didn’t have a uniform – couldn’t afford one. He shrugged it off in front of Davalos and his family. There are bigger problems to worry about.
Davalos went into action accompanying father and son to AI’s Army store to purchase his uniform with FIT funds. This is where the money goes. Visibly uncomfortable with all the attention, but excited, Jake slipped into his uniform and imagined his future as an officer.
New face of homelessness
When Davalos first started as a social worker, many of the people she helped were single mothers. Now they’re entire families. Americans have been slow to change their perception of homelessness. The 60 Minutes special changed everything, says Davalos, who is the single mother of a 10-year-old girl who last year sent President Obama a letter asking him to build more shelters. “It’s important to expose our children to what is going on with their peers, to develop empathy. Be a part of the solution,” she says.
Davalos often makes presentations to schoolchildren about the crisis. A few times homeless kids have come up after the presentation asking for help.
“They’re very thankful to have someone walk that journey with them,” she says.
Twenty-one percent of homeless children become homeless adults. The key to improving this statistic is education, Davalos says. This is Davalos’ life work: Do everything possible to improve these kids’ chances of success in school and give them a shot at a better life.
“I’m on the ground with families, and I will never give it up.” ♦