The children pass the time playing in the trash that litters their makeshift sandbox.
Their shovels are discarded super-sized cups from the corner gas station. Their sand, a lumpy mix of rocks, twigs, wrappers and red clay.
This is how some of the children of Norcross Extended Stay Hotel will be spending their summer. While kids on summer break traditionally get whisked away for family vacations or camp field trips, some children in extended stay hotels will be making dirt forts near a fire hydrant, waiting for a pick-up game of ball to begin.
And missing the security of school.
“I’m going to miss the lunch room,” said Jicor Lawrence, 7. “It always has a bunch of food in it.”
“Macaroni and cheese, tacos, fresh bananas and apples, juice and milk,” his friend Kenan Best, 9, adds. “You can get what you want.”
Their friend Laonce Patterson, 6, says he will miss the playground. “It has slides and swings,” he said. Their hotel doesn’t even have a pool.
Classes ended in Gwinnett schools this week and for many children that brings some unwanted change. School provides thousands of homeless students in Gwinnett and the metro area the stability they don’t always have at home. They are served hot breakfast and lunch. They can read library books at their leisure. They can blow off steam on the monkey bars. They can grow in a safe and nurturing environment.
Gwinnett County Schools classify students as homeless if the student lives in an extended stay hotel or other temporary housing because of economic reasons. School officials say between 1,700 to 2,100 students are considered homeless in the system, but that number could be even higher.
School systems across metro Atlanta have homeless students who live at hotels and shelters on their rosters, too. Cobb and Marietta Schools have a combined population of 1,926 homeless students. DeKalb has 2,067.
Gwinnett County Schools social worker Michael Frech worries about how homeless students will fare over the summer break. “They are going to be pretty much … cooped up in those hotel rooms,” he said. “It’s kind of scary to think about what some of them will be dealing with.”
Police say extended stay hotels are often used as storefronts for drug dealers, prostitutes, and hideouts for criminals. In September, Gwinnett County police arrested a fugitive bunking at Norcross Extended Stay who was wanted on a Louisiana murder charge.
Some metro area students will be stuck alone in hotel properties as their parents look for work and permanent housing. The hotels work to keep children and other guests as safe as possible.
A manager at Norcross Extended Stay said the hotel “doesn’t perform criminal background checks” on guests, but it does take other precautions. “We have security here,” said hotel manager Jeamia Tribble. “Everybody has to present a state or federally issued ID when they check in.”
Guests with kids are urged to take advantage of amenities outside the hotel, Tribble said. “We encourage the parents to take them to the parks.”
Cheryl Patterson, Laonce’s mom, said now that school is out she will be taking her five children to nearby Best Friend Park to swim and play. It is a 30-minute walk. The family car is down. “Right now, our needs are transportation and finding a job, which is difficult when the car is down,” she said. Patterson said she has been living at the hotel for more than a year.
Some organizations like the Salvation Army on Sugarloaf Parkway offer camp scholarships to needy children, but they must provide their own transportation.
Other agencies help the homeless where they live.
Campus Church of Christ members launched the Kids Eat program three years ago to help Gwinnett students get the nourishment they are used to having at school. Officials at Norcross Cooperative Ministry, a food pantry, reported that inquiries for help during the summer went up because families had to supply extra meals for their kids during a time when traditionally food supplies had been low. Kids Eat volunteers drop off meals at seven extended stay hotels on weekdays, mostly in the Norcross area.
According to Gwinnett County Schools, homeless students live at 36 extended stay hotels in Buford, Norcross, Suwanee, Lawrenceville and Duluth. Only some of them are on the delivery route of Kids Eat.
“We pack them a small breakfast, a lunch, a fresh piece of fruit, juice and milk,” said Davida Baker, co-founder of Kids Eat. Volunteers also check in on unsupervised students who may be left in hotel rooms watching TV, she said. “It’s kind of like incarceration for them. We give them a hug and let them know they are not alone in the world.”
School social workers generally don’t see them until they return to school. “When you come back [in the fall], in many cases you don’t know what happened to some of the students. They just kind of disappear,” Frech said.
Some officials believe more should be done in Gwinnett to help homeless children. Fulton, DeKalb and Cobb counties have shelters. Ellen Gerstein, executive director of the Gwinnett Coalition for Health and Human Services, has been working with local agencies to bring a shelter for students and their families to Gwinnett.
“The majority of homeless people in Gwinnett are children,” she said. “They are really helpless victims.”
Leilane Best, Kenan’s mom at Norcross Extended Stay, says her family is a victim of low-wage jobs. She has been in the hotel for months.
Best is in between jobs and has no car. She walks to school to take business classes
that will help her become a legal secretary. Though she would like to see Kenan and his older brother Keith go to a sports camp during the day, she can’t get them there. And she can’t afford to pay. The weekly rent alone at the hotel is about $160. Late fees run about $15. Phone calls are 20 cents each.
“That adds up,” she said.
This summer a friend will watch the boys while Best goes to school so she can save her money for necessities. Her tiny cupboards and refrigerator are packed with quick meals like Ramen noodles she can pop in a microwave or cook in a kitchen with no oven. Best also takes advantage of the help from Kids Eat. Sometimes the children get Chick-fil-A or pizza. “It gives them more choices for snacks and makes them feel like they have something extra to eat,” she said.
The hotel is not the most desirable environment for her family, but Best says it is home for now. “I can’t sit there and say they are going to be safe,” she said. “I don’t know. I am trying to keep them safe. That is my job.”