As a powerful hurricane headed for New Orleans in August 2005, Deidra Thomas-Murray was focused on a different crisis. The deficit-plagued New Orleans Public Schools had just announced that 150 school employees would be laid off, including dozens of Thomas-Murray’s fellow social workers.
Thomas-Murray had spent years working in children’s mental health clinics and the tough public schools of New Orleans; she was a friend and mentor to many of those being fired. “My phone was ringing off the hook,” she recalls. “These were people I worked with every day, part of my family.”
As she consoled her colleagues, she paid little attention to the worsening weather bulletins. A New Orleans native, she wasn’t one to worry too much about hurricane warnings. But on Saturday, August 27, the tenor of her calls began to change. Relatives fretted about the storm. Friends urged her to get out. She resisted, saying her apartment was on the second floor and therefore safe. On Sunday, her father, sister, cousins, and nieces came over. No one had a plan. Then a friend came by and confronted her.
“She was like, ‘Deidra, here’s some cash, you and the kids, y’all get out, get on the road, get a hotel,’” Thomas-Murray remembers. This time, she listened. Leaving behind her indecisive relatives, she packed up her three daughters and two foster daughters, fueled up her car, and joined the gridlocked exodus to Baton Rouge. It was the start of an odyssey that would test her resilience and bring her to a place where she could again use her experiences to help others.
As her hometown flooded, she and her daughters slept on the floor of an acquaintance’s house in Baton Rouge, taking phone calls from the panicked parents of former clients and trying to find out what happened to the relatives who stayed behind. She later learned that most had been airlifted from her roof and that her father escaped by floating on an ice chest. Miraculously, everyone in her family survived.
After two weeks on the floor in Baton Rouge, Thomas-Murray decided to take her mother and daughters to Missouri, where a relative had offered help. For a while, they crowded with four other families in a two-bedroom apartment while Thomas-Murray collected food stamps and hunted for work and housing.
“I’d been a social worker getting families into housing,” she muses. “And now I was trying to get housing myself.”
She found a home and a job as a drug counselor and then a family therapist. In 2006 she was hired as a social worker by the St. Louis Public Schools; in 2009, Superintendent Kelvin Adams, another New Orleans transplant, tapped her to head the district’s program for homeless children.
The job allows her to use the insights she gained from her own experiences with homelessness. It also presents huge challenges. In St. Louis, the number of homeless students has almost doubled in the past three years to some 3,000, a trend repeated across the country. According to the U.S. Department of Education, nearly one million schoolchildren were homeless in the 2009-2010 school year, up 38 percent in four years.
A tireless woman who seems to know everyone, Thomas-Murray networks constantly to solicit donations of coats, underwear, toys and sleeping bags. She stashes most of it in a large closet she’s set up at district headquarters. She also arranges transportation, counsels families, recruits tutors and volunteers, hustles for financial donations and advocates for her kids and families.
Her work has helped the district identify more homeless children; that’s one reason their numbers have grown so dramatically. The other reason is obvious. “More and more families are becoming unemployed and losing their homes,” Thomas-Murray says. “When we look at their forms, they all say ‘economic hardship,’ ‘economic hardship.’”
Despite her optimism and energy, Thompson-Murray sees the damage being homeless inflicts on kids.
“They worry about where they’re going to sleep at night. They have difficulty separating from their parents. If there’s been violence in the family, they’re preoccupied with whether the parent is safe. They have difficulty focusing. They stare off into space. They can be invisible in a crowd of kids. Or they can be the most disruptive in the class.”
It’s a message she delivers to everyone in the schools as she argues for compassion and accommodations from teachers, principals, and city leaders.
“She does a great job because she forces people to do stuff, she kind of embarrasses them into it,” says her boss, Superintendent Adams, in a hallway conversation outside his office near downtown St. Louis. “She forces them to do right by kids——”
“I don’t do that,” Thomas-Murray interjects with a laugh.
“Principals, social service groups – it doesn’t matter,” Adams continues. “She calls everybody’s hand.”
“OK, I’m guilty,” she says.
Elizabeth Snowden is one of the kids Thomas-Murray fights for. Now 17, Snowden spent most of her high-school years coping with headaches, fear and anxiety, sleeping on streets and in overcrowded shelters. Her life revolved around the search for quiet places to do homework and escape the stress that engulfed her family of six after her mother, Audrey, lost her customer-service job at a St. Louis department store four years ago.
Audrey (who asked that her last name be withheld) moved the family to Mississippi, where a promising job prospect evaporated in a region reeling from two hurricanes. When the family returned to St. Louis, they couldn’t regain their housing subsidy and had no money to rent a home. They ended up on the street.
The family has since moved into a small townhouse they found with help from Thomas-Murray. Audrey is still looking for work, but is aided by her oldest daughter, who is employed and helps pay the subsidized rent. Elizabeth hopes to finish high school this year and go to college. For now, at least, she has a place to call home where she can rest and do her schoolwork.
“If we didn’t have Miss Thomas, I don’t think we would have made it,” said Audrey, sitting inside a St. Louis alternative school where Elizabeth hopes to finish high school. “There were a lot of times I was ready to give up and she was just my backbone. I would call her and tell her what’s going on. There were things I needed to do for my children that I was unable to do because mentally I was drained; she stepped to the plate. I love her for that. She’s the true meaning of guardian angel.”
Rob Waters writes about health, science and child and family issues from his home in Berkeley, California. His articles have appeared in Mother Jones, Health, Bloomberg Businessweek, Parenting, The Los Angeles Times, Readers’ Digest, San Francisco magazine, and other publications.