Homelessness did not prevent Leo Ricketts from pursuing an education, attending college and attaining a history degree.
On Nov. 15, Seton Hall’s College of Education & Human Services hosted a panel discussion called “Meeting the Needs of Students and Families Experiencing Eviction and Homelessness: Opportunities for Improved Coordination among Schools, Law Enforcement & the Community.”
The panel discussion was based on the book, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City” by Mathew Desmond, which focuses on a social issue of foreclosures and evictions in the South Orange, Essex County area.
There were three guest speakers: Ricketts, Jeanna Velechko, principal of Lincoln School in Rutherford, and James Walters, a retired detective sergeant and current Enterprise Lifecycle Maintenance Planning (ELMP) person.
Ricketts, a SHU student who has experienced homelessness, was born and raised in Paterson, NJ and currently lives in Newark.
Ricketts was in a precarious living arrangement from the age of 6 to 10. He calls his life “the black experience,” which he defined as a lifestyle with a single-parent household and minimum education and resources.
He saw not only himself, but also many classmates in the same predicament. Ricketts attended six to seven different high schools and lived “in abandoned apartments and even places that are not even habitable,” he said.
Ricketts gave credit to his past teachers, mentors and godfather for helping him through these tough times by providing advice or clothes when he needed them. He knew that if he stood in Paterson he was going to die— “where liquor stores are right around the corner, gangs are neighbors, and there is poverty everywhere; sometimes you just want to see something different. I had no interest in being in a gang or selling drugs,” Ricketts said.
Homelessness is no excuse for not being successful and not trying, Ricketts said.
Rickett’s first eviction experience was anticipated, but the second time was shocking. He said he was concerned about his mother, their safety and their future.
He recalled a night when he and his mother had sunflower seeds for dinner. He knew he never wanted that experience again.
Ricketts is a member of the Martin Luther King Association, which provides partial tuition scholarships for exceptional students who present management and leadership skills as they complete research on social justice and participate in community service.
Seton Hall’s financial aid department has no statistics related to homeless students on campus.
Ricketts, with his lively persona, reminds people “to help around this time of year—close to Thanksgiving and the holidays—but hey, homeless people are hungry in March.”
As a school principal, Jeanna said she is concerned with her schoolchildren’s interests.
“I have kids that are in foster care; I have children that are raised by other family members,” she said, “children of illegal immigrants who have fear of asking for help at school.”
She said that a lot of her students can be considered “high-mobility” children which are kids whose parents are constantly changing their job thus they are constantly moving to different homes, areas, and schools.
Velechko said she looks “for changes in behavior.”
She provided an example of an excellent student who was present on time, completed homework and appeared hygienic. After some time, she realized the student’s behavior altered. She was frequently late and absent, missed assignments and was not preparing correctly before attending school.
Velechko acknowledged she had the right to notify the Department of Human Services but, “it is human for me to think before I even report some news like that. Would I hurt the family? Would my action actually be a better decision for the child?”
Walters, a guest on the panel, works with law enforcement and discussed the eviction process. The process includes the landlord filing eviction against the tenant for not paying rent and then the tenant must attend court, pay the rent, or have a constable remove them.
“Although it’s a function of the law enforcement, it’s actually a function of the court,” Walter said.
Eviction is an issue today for many families, in particular, children, because they are powerless amidst an eviction notice.
According to Walter, the message was critical towards educators to “look beyond what you see initially and try to think what this child is going through, what the child is going home to, and what you can do to help.”
Walters discussed how he once heard children having an open discussion about seeing the red tag on an electric meter, which means state officials will come to turn off the electricity.
According to Walters, children at a young age are experiencing drastic sacrifices and have no control. Secondly, when electricity is not a resource, communication becomes a challenge.
Andrea Correa can be reached at email@example.com.