Life Among Public Housing Residents in the Context of a Pandemic

Categories: COMMUNITY CARE: Placemaking: Housing, Transportation & Economic Support,

Editor's Note: Michelle Stears is the Family and Youth Services Manager at Sarasota Housing Authority.

It’s Monday morning and I’ve already exchanged close to ten emails with schools regarding the multiple individual public housing students who are completing no or very little schoolwork and whose parents cannot be reached by school staff. Now that we’re a few weeks into online learning, it seems to be the same students/families over and over, with all of us at a loss as to how to require these students to participate and continue working when they’re at home and we are not in their homes to oversee and support their learning.

Backtrack to Spring Break, when we were just learning that an extended spring break would be followed by online learning. I could not imagine our public housing students and their parents in a position to fully participate and maintain their academic learning, starting with the “Mobile Device Survey.”

My first recommendation would be to choose words very intentionally if you hope to compel people to take action. Instead of “Mobile Device Survey,” perhaps something more direct, like “Request a Computer for Your Child.”

I was not at all surprised when in those first days of the texts/emails/phone calls from the school district regarding plans for online learning, one parent after another said to me, “Ms. Michelle, they’re gonna do online school. How am I gonna get a computer for X?”

As I began reaching out to our parents, I found that many of them had zero awareness that their children would need district devices and that to get access to those devices, they needed to complete a Mobile Device Survey. The reasons are numerous. Our parents’ phone numbers change frequently and/or are frequently disconnected. Their phones are often low-quality and not reliable. Many or most parents are not proficient with technology, be it smartphones, computers, email, text.

Fortunately, Sarasota Housing Authority (SHA) has N numbers for most-to-all of our school-age youth, so I sat down and did that Mobile Device Survey 316 times. It was a necessary first step, but I knew it would be nowhere near sufficient.

We started contacting parents by phone and text and/or knocking on doors when we were on property distributing All Faiths Food Bank groceries that we were picking up from Girls Inc, an incredibly valuable partner when it comes to serving our families. As I encountered adult residents, I told them that I had requested laptops for all of their children and advised them to call Comcast to get 60 days free Internet Essentials. I emphasized that they would be receiving calls from the district regarding when and where to pick up the laptops for their students.

Many received the call, and many did not. As the statewide lockdown approached, parents went to their assigned pick-up location on their assigned day but were told that the laptops were gone. Many were advised to try second and third distribution spots, so they drove from school to school, only to learn that there were no more laptops to be distributed.

Two very high-achieving middle school students were among those who still hadn’t received laptops when the district ran out. While both teens’ stories are inspiring, one of these 8th graders comes from a large family that sometimes struggles to meet everyone’s needs and as a result, is no stranger to the Department of Children and Families (DCF). My heart swells each academic quarter as this 8th grade student continues to excel in all honors classes and 10th grade math. When his mom called me and said she had failed to get even one laptop for the household after driving to three different distribution spots, we acted quickly to ensure that both of these high-achieving teens had early access to a couple SHA laptops on loan.

I emailed lists of names of public housing students missing laptops to their respective schools and ultimately, every family who is equipped with internet received at least one laptop. This has very much been a team effort with daily communication between SHA and numerous school district staff determined to ensure that all of their students are able to participate in online learning. We have numerous families, nonetheless, who are relying on paper packets, due to the fact that they lack internet or parents simply lack the education, computer skills, perseverance or will to oversee online learning.

I serve public housing youth and their families, but I am also the mother of a 15-year-old Sarasota County public school student, a situation that always provides stark contrasts. My son’s ability to adjust to homeschool and online learning and the ability of our public housing students and families to adjust could not be more different.

With the exception of Zoom meetings, I don’t believe my son has had to learn to use any new technology or online programs. His home is and has always been an environment that is conducive to and supportive of his learning. He has adjusted easily and there is little-to-no discernible change in his heavy workload. Online learning from home is not compromising his ability to progress in his studies. Meanwhile, many-to-most of our public housing students are not adjusting easily, not able to utilize the technology, not able to turn their homes into home schools, and too many of our students are just falling further behind.

Online learning at home requires a level of parent engagement that is simply lacking among some of our families. The kids are sometimes taking advantage of their parents' computer illiteracy and pretending to not know how to do their online work or telling parents they’re doing work when they are not. Other times, the students want to do the work and while they may know how to log-on to this or that program at school, they’re overwhelmed by the list of online programs they need to master from home. Parents are exasperated by the number of calls/texts/emails from teachers and prone to give up. I also have some serious concern about particular teens who are isolated and sleeping their days away, with their mental health at risk.

There are success stories too. Na’riyah is in third grade and her Mom proudly shared with me the virtual award that she recently received for her hard work. During the school day, Na’riyah’s younger sister attends a daycare that cares for children of essential workers, while Na’riyah’s Mom is at work. Na’riyah is plugging away at her schoolwork and in constant contact with her teacher via Zoom and her working mother via Facetime.


Photo Caption: Na’riyah with the kale she harvested from Sarasota Housing Authority's Youth Thrive Garden shortly before spring break.

As the Family and Youth Services Manager, my office is conveniently located right on public housing property. I typically interact with dozens of residents daily, with adults stopping in with questions or looking for assistance through-out the school day and kids flooding my office on a daily basis during our After-School Program.

Since the statewide lockdown, I have mainly communicated with residents via phone/text/email. At home, I am able to accomplish everything from processing financial assistance applications, to assisting residents in applying for unemployment, to walking a resident through the steps to attend her virtual child support court hearing. Much of my time is spent facilitating communication between schools and families regarding home learning, though this also requires visiting our families at home.

We take turns working on property, distributing groceries or school-learning packets, knocking on doors of those families who are not responding to the schools, as well as other residents who we know to be vulnerable. Zoom meetings are the new normal, but I get the sense that for many of our families, eyes in their home are unwelcome. They’re not unique in this regard.

When I am on property, it's impossible to socially distance. Our residents are not by and large socially distancing, so they approach me closely and the kids in particular are impossible to distance oneself from. They come up and hug me, seemingly reassured to see a face from their pre-COVID 19 lives. And I of course don't have it in me to turn down a hug from any of them. In general, people are still out and about, congregating on porches and in the park, and kids in particular are running and biking around in packs as if nothing has changed.

As the weeks pass, I find myself bringing a growing number of students (one and two-at-a-time) into my office to ensure they participate in Zoom appointments with teachers or most importantly, their mental health therapist. All details aside, we have some children who cannot afford to spend weeks and months without mental health support, especially if/when it is their living environment that is at the root of their mental and emotional health challenges.

There are likely many more stories among our 1,700 section 8 families spread out around Sarasota and Bradenton. The paper unemployment applications made available on the section 8 office door keep disappearing. Among public housing families, I know of only one who lost a job due to COVID-19, having been employed at a hotel. I helped her apply for unemployment on March 22nd, and this Monday was the first time I was able to get back on the website to check the status of her application (“being processed”), so she is still waiting and hoping and consumed with stress about her upcoming bills.

Loss of childcare is probably the biggest single factor impacting our families, many of whom are young single parent households. Some working parents have family members they can leave the kids with but many of our parents can't work without childcare. I know of a few residents who work as CNA’s or Resident Aides, who upon learning of COVID-19 cases among their clients, either reduced work hours substantially or stopped working all together out of fear they would contract the virus and there would be no one to care for their children.

Among public housing families, food security seems stable. Boar's Head is providing breakfast/lunches to public housing kids through a partnership with Roy McBean Boys & Girls Club, which is on public housing property. We were relieved when Boar’s Head and Roy McBean stepped in to ensure public housing youth have daily breakfast and lunch meals.

Summer is a huge question on everyone’s mind. SHA operates a Summer Enrichment Program, focused on preventing summer reading loss and enriching SHA youth participants’ lives with arts and science programming and weekly field trips. Like everyone else, we have no choice but to approach each day one day at a time and to gradually adjust to our new normal while finding new ways to ensure we are there for our families.