A back to school night at Eliza Shirley House

PHOTOS: TOM GRALISH / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Volunteer Gini George (right) says goodbye to mother Cheryl Bartlette (left) at the shelter's back-to-school night.

TODAY BEGINS another school year in Philadelphia where students are asked to make do with little or less. For thousands of students - 3,652 according to the school district - making do starts way before the first bell rings.

The Eliza Shirley House is an emergency homeless shelter in Center City for women and children run by the Salvation Army.

The shelter is full every night. Inside are families in survival mode. But between trying to make sense of how they got here and what they need to get out, preparations are made for the first day of school.

Before life threw Cheryl Bartlette a curveball, she'd take her two teenage daughters on a back-to-school shopping spree every year. Some cute clothes. School supplies. A little end-of-the-summer mother-daughter time at a restaurant to end the day.

The other day they sat inside the shelter during a back-to-school night the staff had organized for families who often come in with little more than the clothes on their backs.

"There's a lot of daily pressure," said Marilyn Canty, shelter director. "We see the sadness, a lot of depression. We see kids close up and shut down. So to see them having a moment of happiness, those are the good times because we know this is difficult for them. We tell them, we know it's not great, but you're going towards something. This is just a stopover."

Bartlette said the shelter is a good place. Simple, clean rooms. Plenty of food. TV. A safe place to get back on her feet. She and her girls, 13 and 16, got to the shelter in June, after a job loss and some housing arrangements didn't work out.

"We visited our stuff at the storage unit today," Bartlette said with a smile as she waited for her number so that she and her daughter could collect the donated items: hair products, book bags full of folders and paper, and the surprisingly popular locks. Steps away a young boy was getting his hair cut by a barber who volunteered his time.

Under extreme uncertainty, the women remain amazingly positive. A brave face for the children watching their every move, no doubt. But also practiced resilience from people who know there's little gained from being any other way.

"A lot of people think, 'Oh, you're homeless, you don't have much.' Well I don't have much, but a lot of people don't have much," said Scottie Rosario. In July, Rosario packed up her beloved car - a 1989 Grand Marquis - to come care for her aging parents. She and her daughters were half way to Philadelphia from Florida when she found out that the job and housing she had lined up had fallen through.

"To me, homeless is an existence, a temporary existence," she said. "It doesn't have to be a state of mind. Once it becomes a state of mind, people start to give up. I have no intention of giving up."

Some of the women and children here don't want to talk to strangers or have their pictures taken. Privacy is all many have left. Others dig deeper than their years to find a level of acceptance.

Being homeless "is not something I'm comfortable with," said Cheryl Bartlette's 13-year-old, Ajua. "But the way they show stuff like this on TV is wrong. There's nothing wrong with being in a shelter, it's just that no one wants to be in this situation."

Most nights, the 100-bed shelter is at capacity. Families typically stay for a month or two, but some stay much longer until they are placed into long-term city housing programs.

That's what Bartlette is hoping for. A new job, a new place and a second chance to continue family traditions.

"I have faced adversity in my life, but I didn't know that I was going to put my daughters through this," she said, watching her older daughter approvingly inspect her new purple backpack.

"It's difficult but at the same time you need to learn how to go through something to be stronger on the other side."

Email: ubinas@phillynews.com

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