By this time of the fall, families with kids are settling into the rhythm of the school year. For children, the days follow a familiar pattern. Get ready to get out the door, with varying amounts of chaos and stress; get to school by some regular means of transportation; sit through classes; get home; do homework; relax; sleep; start all over again. It quickly becomes dull.
But for homeless families, a boring, predictable schedule can often be an unattainable luxury – and children suffer as a result. This month, the Public Justice Center filed a class action federal lawsuit on behalf of three homeless families in Baltimore, alleging that their children don’t have consistent transportation to school and that they are stigmatized because they can't afford uniforms.
Like many school districts, Baltimore has seen an increase in homeless students in the wake of the housing crisis and weak economy. There were more than 2,800 homeless children in the city's school system last year, twice as many as there were five years ago, out of an overall population of 85,000.
The Public Justice Center lawsuit charges that the Baltimore school district is failing to meet its obligations under the McKinney-Vento Act of 2001, which requires homeless youth have the same access to public education as any other kids.
Monisha Cherayil, lead attorney with the Public Justice Center’s Education Stability Project, says her organization filed the suit because, despite recent improvements in Baltimore’s treatment of homeless youth, some kids were still having trouble getting to class weeks after the opening day. "We are very hopeful that the filing of the suit itself will result in an amicable solution where we can work with the school district on solutions," she says.
The difficulties encountered by Tameka Pridget and one of her sons, plaintiffs in the case, are typical of the challenges that face kids who are displaced from their homes. From the Baltimore Sun:
The mother of two said she had to borrow gas money to get her 9-year-old son to school, and on time, neither of which happens regularly. She said they twice had to walk miles to his West Baltimore school when she ran out of gas.
Pridget's older son attends a school closer to the [shelter where the family is staying], but she said he's often late because she's not back in time to help him make the 8 a.m. bell.
"It's been really stressful," Pridget said. "I'm spending money that I don't have, borrowing money that I can't pay back. ... He asks all the time if he's going to school, and some days I don't know what to tell him because I just don't have the money."
Pridget doesn’t want to transfer her son to another school because he receives special education services where he is now and has been doing well there. She also says that she fears losing her benefits because it takes so much time to get her sons to school that she can’t fulfill the requirements for keeping them.
Another plaintiff in the case charges that her child was sent home from school for the first week because he didn’t have the required uniform, which costs more than $100.
Representatives from the Baltimore school system told the Sun that the district "has increased its focus on and strengthened the services provided to homeless students," but would not comment on the lawsuit.
The Public Justice Center has filed similar suits in Prince George’s Baltimore, and Montgomery Counties, all in Maryland. The problem of accommodating homeless kids in school, however, is national. Figures vary, but according to the National Center on Family Homelessness, 1.6 million children around the country are homeless. In New York City, which is the largest school district in the country, with 1.1 million students, some 53,000 kids don’t have a permanent home and are living in shelters, hotels or motels, or doubled up with family members or friends.
The problems those kids face can be debilitating. They are sick four times as often as kids who are not homeless, twice as likely to be hungry, and suffer from emotional and behavioral problems at three times the rate of other children.
Kids who are not living in shelters but still don’t have a permanent place to call home pose a particular challenge. "They’re invisible," says Cherayil. "Those students are very much in need, but they’re hard to find, and they don’t have easy access to support services."
Whether they are living in shelters, motels, or with family or friends, kids who don’t have a home to call their own get a particular benefit from school and its structure. "School can be the one place of stability for those kids when the rest of their lives is falling apart," says Cherayil. That, she adds, is why her organization focuses on getting school districts to implement policies that bring them into compliance with existing laws.
Cherayil says that in her work she sees firsthand the importance of a regular, consistent school schedule. "I have one client, he tells me that everyone else looks forward to the bell at the end of the day," she says. "But he wishes the day would go on and on. That really speaks to the importance of school."