On the Tip of Aggravated: Homeless Kids and School
JR: Do y'all know my name? You don't know my name do y'all?
CLASS: JR Bennett.
JR: No it's not. [laugh] Herbert R. Bennett Jr. Don't ever call me Herbert! Don't ever call me Herbert!

NARRATOR: He prefers to be called JR. He's sitting at the end of a table in a conference room at the coalition for the homeless in downtown Manhattan. He and the other students in the room are part of the coalition's youth advocacy group. They meet weekly to work on raising awareness about homelessness. They feel comfortable here talking about being homeless, something they can't do with just anyone.

JR: So. Today's topic is going to be um, homelessness and education while being in the shelter system.

NARRATOR: Today JR, the founder of the group, is leading a conversation about school.

DEANDRA K: First day of high school, my mom went to my guidance counselor. So that was fun [laugh]

NARRATOR: Deandra K. Atkinson is 16.

DEANDRA K: And I had a lecture about, even though I'm homeless, I can still do great, and– I can get everything done. And I didn't. So they would say, oh, you could have done it if you really wanted to, if you wanted to try you could have made it. And I'm like how?

NARRATOR: Homeless students across the country have to deal with more than the usual difficulty of growing up in poverty. Along with the stress and instability of moves from shelter to shelter, they often have to negotiate long commutes. Frequent moves also make it difficult too keep school records straight. And even basic things like supplies and uniforms are hard to come by. And then there are the relationships with teachers and the other students.

JR: how exactly we are treated by like, people that knew that you are homeless?

VAUGHN: They talk about it constantly.

NARRATOR: That's 14 year old Vaughn Bathia.

VAUGHN: They make fun of us, saying that we can't afford anything. We can't afford housing, we can't afford clothes and stuff.

ISIS: They used to get in my face, they be tellling me, oh you ugly, you dirty, you this and that.

NARRATOR: Isis is 13. She's Vaughn's sister. They just moved out of the shelter system into an apartment in the Bronx. THEY WERE HOMELESS FOR MORE THAN TWO YEARS.

ISIS: When I was homeless, my attitude was really on the tip of aggravated

NARRATOR: Homeless students are caught in a bind. Ideally, a teacher would know their situation and would provide extra time for them to complete projects if they miss school. But at the same time, the kids don't really want anyone to know.

AGNES: Let's face it: kids are cruel to other kids.

NARRATOR: Agnes Stevens is a retired teacher in Los Angeles. She founded school on wheels 11 years ago, a non–profit that provides educational assistance to homeless students through tutoring and other services.

AGNES: I've seen it work greatly when a teacher is aware of children coming from a shelter. But I've seen it far too often where nobody knows and there's that mistrust on all sides.

JR: Sometimes you get the pity case, like some of the teachers want to like– You know, because of the fact that you're homeless it's like 'we understand your situation'. And it's like, well I'm no different than any of the other kids in the class. I guess I feel like it's kind like talking down to me. You know, it's ok, you're homeless you know. It shouldn't be that way You know, we are going through something different. But it's just like, other kids in the class like, feed off of that. You know, why's he getting an extension, is it because he's homeless?

VAUGHN: I had to go to different schools to finally finish the 5th grade

NARRATOR: That's Vaughn again.

VAUGHN: I tried to finish 5th grade in one school year, we was forced to move to another shelter. Then I tried again. And I was almost there, it was almost June, and then we had to move again.

NARRATOR: According the to the McKinney Vento act, a federal law protecting the rights of homeless students, these kids are allowed to stay in their school of origin, where they lived before becoming homeless. School districts are obligated to help them do that. But not everyone is informed of this right. If they do decide to stay, their schools can be far away from their shelter. And they have trouble making it to school on time, or making it at all. And they're exhausted with negotiating the system.

DEANDRA K: A lot of times like, I know I slept during school. That was my time to sleep...

ISIS: You over here like this, like slouching in the table and everything, and they like, what's wrong with you Isis? And you was like, I didn't sleep last night.

AGNES: I think for a teacher it's kind of frustrating because they maybe don't come in with their work, or they're out a lot of times, and that kind of thing.

NARRATOR: Agnes says that in Los Angeles, public schools are already overburdened, as are most urban school systems in the us. Add in homeless students, there are 800 in downtown's skid row alone––it's a lot to deal with for overworked teachers.

AGNES: The classroom teacher really– when our tutors get a hold of them, they really want to help. I think it's just the conflict and frustration of people not knowing where people are coming from.

JR: Since I've gotten into high school, I've really began to like school a lot, because I felt comfortable there. I dread going to my shelter.

NARRATOR: JR lives with his father, and was first homeless when he was four. In 2002, he became homeless again, at the end of his first year of high school.

JR: I feel like my only escape out of the shelter system right now is college. Most of the colleges I applied to is out of New York State. I don't want to be in New York City anymore, I don't know, just too many bad memories. I just want to leave it.

NARRATOR: In New York, this is Sarah Elzas. This piece was produced with Sarah Kramer.

This piece aired nationally on February 15, 2005 as part of The Homelessness Marathon. It aired August 16, 2006 on WAMC, April 22, 2007 on WFUV and September 15, 2007 on Marfa Public Radio.

Producer: Sarah Elzas and Sarah Kramer
Recorded in New York, NY