Meghan Lloyd-Winstanley walks to her school PS 332, slated to close. (Photo by Mary Plummer)
Six-year old Meghan Lloyd-Winstanley sits in a plastic chair, looking down at her hands, as her mother, Teasha, stands above her recounting a laundry list of problems.
There are mice and bedbugs and roaches in their building, the 31-year-old mother said one February evening.
A window that won't close all the way in their tiny living space.
No work for Meghan's dad, James, 40, who's applied to more than 300 jobs in his search for desktop support IT work.
"I don't know whether to cry or scream or what," Teasha said. Teasha is tall and skinny, her angled arms look like taut tree branches.
The problems are unmistakably overwhelming, but Meghan remains calm and quiet - her composure is oddly serene next to her mother's frantic monologue. She looks up from time to time between the messy brown waves of her pixie cut. She's used to hearing her mother's troubles.
In fact, she lives them everyday. The Lloyd-Winstanley family is homeless - they began living in various city homeless shelters in 2006. Meghan shares one room at the Junius Street homeless shelter in Brownsville, Brooklyn with her parents and two younger brothers, 2-year-old Dylan, and 4-year-old Brendan. Adding to Meghan's troubled fate, the city announced in January that her beloved school is scheduled to close down too.
Meghan and Brendan are two of about 100 homeless students who attend Public School 332, which has about 550 students total. The school is located a few blocks from the shelter on the corner of Christopher and Liberty Avenues in one of the poorest sections of New York. PS 332 was one of the 19 schools labeled as a failure by the Department of Education in January and scheduled for closure. The school experienced more than a 100 percent increase in homeless students last year. With few resources, teachers have been left on their own to help educate the homeless students who often need extra attention, according to science teacher Vanecia Wilson.
Parents have argued that the school needs to remain intact because it's a positive force in the tough neighborhood. Julia Escalera has lived in the projects across the street since she was eight months old. Now her daughter and niece go to the school. She doesn't go outdoors with them after 10 p.m. because she's afraid of the drug dealers and sex offenders.
"This neighborhood is 50/50, it's like you always got to look behind your back," she said, adding that losing the school is losing the "peaceful" place.
PS 332 provides stability and stimulation in Meghan's complicated life. Born in 2003 at St. Vincent's Medical Center in lower Manhattan, she's lived in poverty ever since. Her father James has been unemployed since April of last year. He's had trouble holding a job since Meghan was born. The family of five has bounced around from Texas to Louisiana to Arkansas living mostly in hotels and shelters. They even spent two painful nights on the streets of Dallas in 2006, where Meghan and Brendan slept on top of each other in a one-child stroller. In 2008, the family of five moved more than 13 times.
For James, who grew up in a middle-class family in New Jersey, raising his family as a homeless person was unimaginable. He always thought he'd be an actor, owning one or two nice homes. He said every time he finishes a move it feels like he's just ran a marathon - but the exhaustion never fades because one thought is always with him, "What's going to happen tomorrow?"
"You never see it coming until it hits," he said, adding that he used to think homeless people were lazy and shiftless. "It's one of the most terrifying things you can go through."
PTA president Reina Foster said she's still shocked that the school's closing - she thinks it will cause particular hardships for all the homeless children who crave a steady schedule.
"The school is more stability than the actual home itself," said Foster, who has four of her children at the school and also went there herself. "PS 332 isn't just a school, it's a safe house for them - it's a home."
Meghan enjoys school. "Sometimes I miss school," she said one day from her home at the shelter. Her favorite subject is art, and she likes making paper airplanes.
Her love of school is one of the first details that come to mind when you ask anyone about her.
"She's a hard worker, she's patient," said Wilson, Meghan's science teacher. "She goes above and beyond to show you that she's following directions and that she's a good listener."
Meghan, who's performing on grade level, talks a lot about her family when she's at school. But she doesn't talk about her home. Last month, Wilson was teaching a lesson on environments and community. The kids were telling stories about where they live.
"She doesn't discuss that," Wilson said. Wilson teaches about 20 homeless students and said they often have trust issues and feel as if they don't belong. "They are kind of like outsiders of the group. I think that affects their self esteem."
Wilson said unlike many homeless students, Meghan has good attendance. When Meghan recently missed a string of days because she had to get checked for lice, Wilson was worried. "I thought they were gone," she said. At PS 332, homeless students often transfer shelters and disappear without even a goodbye.
Currently, Meghan is one of four homeless students in her class. For Meghan’s classmates, problems at home lead to poor attendance. During the month of February, Meghan’s class of 17 had an average of five students absent every day. It’s an issue Meghan’s teacher Mona Prince said the school can’t tackle on its own. Prince talks to students’ parents when kids fall behind because of absences and tardies, but she said it doesn’t make a difference.
“I think a lot of parents have a lot of problems themselves,” she said. “They live in a situation that’s not ideal. They’re in survival mode.”
Meghan has lots of friends - but can only see them when she's at school. The shelter doesn't allow guests past a small, square visitors room. Meghan is one of about 500 kids who live at the shelter, which houses about 215 families.
"Everyone thinks it's a bad thing. They don't think having visitors are nice," Meghan explained. She imagines living somewhere else and having a big birthday party. "When we move I'll have all my friends over."
At school Meghan enjoys a treasured commodity in her life: space. She runs around and plays games at gym time. She goes outside during lunch.
At the shelter, James said his biggest wish for Meghan is that she could have her own room, "a place to retreat." Meghan and her brothers can only play in the middle of the room they all share, which can become a minefield of sorts with toys spread out across the small space. Teasha said Meghan gets frustrated and will sometimes hit herself on the arms.
"Our house is too small. The closet's too small," Meghan explained. She calls their home at the shelter, "one little house."
Being homeless has taken a toll on the family. Both James and Teasha admit to battling depression the past few years. It comes in waves, and leads to more fighting. When it hits, James and Teasha become reclusive. But the pair depend on one another and have been able to maintain, never down for more than a week.
"We lean on each other," James said, but "The sooner we get out of here, the happier we're going to be."
Both parents are upset about the school closing. James spoke in protest at a December school meeting. He was frustrated that the school closure could mean that students who live at the shelter will need to bused somewhere to attend a new school. "Why further handicap those that have a handicap in the first place?" he said at the meeting.
The closure means the school will gradually be phased out. Pre-kindergarten, kindergarten, second, third and sixth grades will be eliminated next year, as a public school and a charter school move in to take PS 332's place. The following year fourth and seventh grades will be eliminated, and PS 332 will officially close in June 2012. In the near future, Meghan will keep her routines, but the closure added to the family's sense of insecurity and a general feeling that wherever they go services are disappearing.
"I think the school's been given up on," James said. If Meghan and Brendan stay in the neighborhood they will eventually have to attend different schools.
The Department of Education says that since the phase-out is gradual the closure will not displace homeless students, and that education quality generally improves as schools are phased out and better able to give fewer students the attention they need.
But for the Winstanley family there isn't much time to worry about the school.
"Right now the school is not really at the top of my mind," Teasha said. "I'm trying to get out of here."
Meghan's parents walk her to and from school each day; the path takes them by shuttered businesses covered in graffiti and many empty lots lined in barbed wire. It's a neighborhood that looks long forgotten, and Meghan's parents say they don't trust it. Teasha, who said she was physically abused when she was a teenager and ran away from home at about 14 years old, talks a lot about protecting Meghan.
"You've got to be careful," Teasha said. "Pedophiles, rapists, you name it they live here."
Back in the fluorescent-lit visitors' room Teasha told a story about gangs and their street clothes. At PS 332, some kids as young as sixth graders are gang members and family rivalries often are carried inside the school, where gunshots on the street are sometimes heard from the classrooms.
"Stay away from bad people," Teasha told Meghan.
"I know that," Meghan answered back, with a roll of her eyes. It's hard to imagine at age six how Meghan could mix with a bad crowd. In her pink flowered dress she's shy and respectful. But the smell of the room and the piles of trash that line the streets outside the shelter suggest that Meghan's already experienced her fair share of trouble.
"I'm trying to keep my kids from seeing the ghetto," Teasha said. "It's frustrating, because what do you tell a six year old about their living situation?"
Mary Plummer covered charter schools for the School Stories website and was embedded in Democracy Prep in Harlem.