FORT WORTH -- Fort Worth police officer Julie Cox can't shake the memory of a conversation she had last year with a teen in an art program for homeless kids.
When she told him he could keep a portion of the sale of his art, his response was uncommon.
"He said, 'I get $28? So I get to buy shoes now,'" Cox recalled.
"It bothered me that this kid was trying to figure out how to buy shoes. He should have been thinking about sports or football games," said Cox, who serves as a liaison to the homeless and elderly. "But a lot of our kids are thinking about using their money to buy hygiene products or to buy a bus pass."
This week, Cox unveiled The Care Closet in a Fort Worth school, a place where middle- and high-school students who are homeless or in need can get free basic necessities.
State records show that 78 percent of the 83,000 students in Fort Worth schools are considered economically disadvantaged, defined as eligible for free or reduced-price lunch or other public assistance. And about 1,600 have been identified as homeless this school year.
There are likely more students from homeless families, including those living in cars, in shelters or doubling up in another family's home, said June Davis, director of the Fort Worth schools special programs department, which works with homeless students. Teachers work to identify homeless students and bring their needs to the attention of school district officials.
"People are losing jobs and one thing we see a lot is people returning to the ranks of the homeless," Davis said. "They will get that leg up and get out of it, and then before you know it we see them again. It's a lot of new people but some that have experienced it before."
Previous attempts at creating a clothing closet in Fort Worth schools have not worked because of a lack of manpower to staff them, Davis said.
The new facility is in a set of small rooms tucked inside an Arlington Heights High School art classroom. Students, accompanied by a teacher, counselor or police school resource officer, will be able to pick out clothes, accessories and toiletries that have been donated by local businesses and community members.
The project is a partnership between the Fort Worth school district and the Fort Worth Police Department. Using largely volunteer labor, the campus space was renovated to look like a retail boutique.
The school district has grant money to buy some toiletries and clothes for homeless students, but the money can't be used to allow students to choose their own clothes. And the district can't provide certain accessories, such as jewelry, that are stocked at The Care Closet.
Other school districts, including Mansfield, Birdville and Hurst-Euless-Bedford, have established similar programs for needy students that are run by volunteers. In Arlington, several campuses operate their own programs.
Birdville school district's Council of PTAs started the Clothes Connection and Supply Depot in a closet at the Shannon Learning Center in Haltom City 22 years ago. It is now open two mornings a week in a school district warehouse. Employees can donate money to the initiative through a payroll deduction program.
Students whose families qualify for free or reduced school meal plans, those who have had emergencies such as a fire, and those identified as in need by school officials can get donated clothes, socks and underwear, a coat and a voucher for new school shoes, said Erin Powell, president of the Birdville Council of PTAs.
The demand is increasing. About five years ago, when Powell first started, Birdville served about 800 students. This year, they've served about 1,400 students, nearing their goal of 1,500.
"We are definitely seeing more," she said. "Part of that is we've tried to up our donations and get the community involved so we have enough for the whole school year."
The school district has identified 354 students as homeless, but not all the students stay the whole school year. The number was 357 for 2011-2012, Birdville spokesman Mark Thomas said.
In Mansfield, the PTAs Clothes Closet was launched in 2000. Last year it served 1,000 students and has served 750 students so far this school year. Families get a voucher to use on their first trip to the center to verify they qualify, but they can return up to four times during the school year, said Patti Jones, who runs the clothes closet.
In the 2011-12 school year, Mansfield schools had 59 students identified as homeless. This year, there are 69, a spokesman said.
In Fort Worth, business groups, students and ordinary citizens have donated clothes or items for The Care Closet. A group of coupon-clipping moms used their skills to secure shampoo and other toiletries. Students in a college readiness program at Arlington Heights chose the name. And, along with peers at North Side High School, the teens pitched in to prepare the room, painting, sorting clothes and decorating, said Jackie Garcia, an Arlington Heights teacher.
North Side High senior Andres Diaz de Leon, 17, donated four pairs of blue jeans that were new but didn't fit.
"When I found out about this, I thought 'they can use this more than I can,'" he said. "I know what it feels like to want but not have. This would have been extremely helpful growing up. This would have been a blessing."
Jessamy Brown, 817-390-7326