On a recent Wednesday night at the Quality Inn on New York Avenue in Northeast—which the city uses as an overflow homeless shelter—parents and children poured into the motel’s community room for a back-to-school drive.
Replete with pizza, face painting, hula hoop dancing, and games, the event was one of several such drives the Homeless Children’s Playtime Project hosted this month across four local shelters, to provide families with new bookbags stuffed with school supplies. Individual donors gave Playtime funds to buy the pencils, folders, and other items, while individual groups donated the bags.
“All the backpacks are brand new. We always specifically ask for that because we feel the families deserve it,” says Melanie Hatter, the communications coordinator for Playtime. “A lot of families are dealing with hand-me-down, second-hand clothes all the time, and our goal is to give them new things, new toys.”
While Playtime distributed 300 backpacks in August, homeless advocates know they’re barely scratching the surface for the almost 6,000 students experiencing homelessness heading back to school in D.C.—a number that has risen starkly over the last half-decade, despite the city claiming a nearly 24 percent drop in family homelessness since 2015.
In 2019 there were 5,593 homeless students in the District, up from about 3,000 students five years earlier. Under federal law, students are not only considered homeless if they are living on the streets or in shelters, but also if they lack permanent housing more generally. Tierra Washington, the Homeless Children and Youth Program Specialist for D.C. Public Schools, says the increase in student homelessness is partly driven by the city’s lack of affordable housing and jobs that pay a living wage, as well as D.C.’s status as a sanctuary city—which means families who may be fleeing natural disasters or other dangerous circumstances are welcome.
Mayor Muriel Bowser’s administration has claimed a steep drop in family homelessness by relying on the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s more narrow definition of homelessness. Unlike most other federal agencies, HUD controversially only counts as homeless those individuals found living in shelters or on the streets. To do this, once a year communities all over the U.S. go outside and literally count how many people they can find living in those circumstances over the course of an evening, an annual event called the Point-in-Time Count. Homeless advocates have long criticized government officials for relying on this more limited metric, which ignores those who may be huddled up with others in crowded apartments or crashing in motels.
In 2019, HUD’s annual count showed only 1,606 homeless children living in D.C.
“The city numbers are inaccurate and misleading,” says Barbara Duffield, the executive director of SchoolHouse Connection, a national youth homelessness organization. “We’re seeing this same story play out nationally, where politicians claim family homelessness is going down while schools see their numbers continue to go up. Schools use a definition of homelessness that matches the reality for families and youth having to stay with other people because they have nowhere else to go.”
The Department of Human Services director Laura Zeilinger told DCist that both metrics of homelessness “are important and used to inform D.C. policy decisions.” Zeilinger says they rely on HUD’s Point In Time Count for comparison to past years because it “is most useful to capture trend data.” She says the Education Department metric “helps the District understand the broader affordable housing needs and potential inflow to the homeless service system.”
Zellinger points to programs like the Homelessness Prevention Program and Project Reconnect as examples of initiatives DHS has embraced to assist households at risk of homelessness who are not currently on the streets or in emergency shelters. “DHS serves households meeting both definitions, recognizing there is massive need and no one-size-fits-all approach to a housing emergency,” she said.
In 2018, HUD reported in its Annual Homeless Assessment Report that family homelessness had declined nationally by 23 percent since 2007, even though the U.S. Department of Education reported a 70 percent increase in homeless youth during that time. Head Start also reported 52,764 homeless students in 2017, an increase of 100 percent since 2007.
Statistics aside, back-to-school marks an important time for youth experiencing homelessness in the city, who may be returning to the classroom after several turbulent months off.
Washington, of DCPS, notes that losing access to free meals if they’re not attending summer school or school-based programming can be one of the most challenging things for homeless children over the summer. “Losing access to support staff in the school who they built relationships with” can also be hard, she said.
Heading back to school means a host of new people around to provide homeless youth with daily stability and care.
“You may not be going to the same place to sleep every night but at least you’re coming back to the same classroom,” said Duffield. “You have friends and activities that can help distract you, though the challenges you face at home also can make it hard to focus. School is of tremendous importance for homeless youth, to just to ensure one’s basic needs are being met.”
Playtime isn’t the only group to support families transitioning back to the classroom. Nearly all schools host various back-to-school events, and by law, all public schools have a homeless liaison on staff. These employees work to help homeless families track down school supplies, toiletries, as well as learn their rights.
Sasha Bruce Youthwork, a local homeless youth organization, also helps distribute school supplies and backpacks through its Teen Outreach Program. Courtney Gibbs, who has managed the program in D.C. since 2013, says ensuring homeless youth have access to clean, fitting uniforms can be an annual challenge. “Sometimes just transitioning from one grade to the next, students grow, they need new uniforms, a fresh haircut, a fresh pair of shoes,” she said. “Sometimes those basic needs get forgotten when we think of students who are homeless. And it can be very challenging, very frustrating for a young person to deal with that.”
The McKinney–Vento Homeless Assistance Act of 1987 lays out the rights of homeless students in the United States. “If we have a student who is enrolled in their school of origin and their housing status changes at any time … we are mandated to allow them to attend the boundary school based on their new temporary address,” explained Washington. “They have the option to remain in their school of origin, or if they move to another shelter or another family member’s house—they have the right to enroll in that [new] boundary school.”
To make things easier on homeless students, advocates say the city needs to do more to connect families with information and wraparound resources, as well as provide students with more accessible transportation options. All students in the city are given SmarTrip cards that can be used to ride freely on the Metrorail, bus, or circulator for school-related travel, but sometimes the distance between where a student lives and the nearest transit stop can be formidable.
Earlier this month, the executive director of Playtime sent a letter to the Council asking for the city to provide a shuttle bus or circulator to help youth staying at the Quality Inn and the Days Inn get to the nearest Metro station. More than 530 children current live in those two hotel shelters, according to the Community Partnership for the Prevention of Homelessness. (The city plans to move all families permanently out of those two locations by the end of 2020.)
“This area is not only a food desert but it’s also an educational desert—this is not a zoned area for schooling,” Hatter said of the region around the hotel shelters. “A lot of the families are spending money on Ubers to try to go to work or get their kids to school, and we’re really hoping the city will do more for these families, even if there’s only a year here left.”