Changing Lives: Stories of Impact
Aleah Green, A Mother Defending Her Son's Right to Attend School
“Powerlessness is defined by the free dictionary as lacking strength; being helpless and totally ineffectual. Interestingly, it is also defined as lacking legal or other authority.”
There is a reason it is called a cycle of homelessness. Like the pedal on a bicycle, even when you are about to escape its pull, you are pushed back into its path. The conditions that surround homelessness make it almost impossible to rise above.
Even worse, the cycle has been proven to be generational, creating a downward spiral for those caught in its unrelenting clutch. The greatest victims are often children, who endure these circumstances during their youth and carry its burden into adulthood. Inexplicably, the barriers mounted against homeless children in pursuit of an education, the best course to escape, are the rule rather than the exception.
"Now imagine: You have lost your home, vehicle and any way to provide for your child.
You are standing with your son in a fairly crowded school lobby. Your son is old enough to start kindergarten and is anxious to start. You are at the school located directly across from the home you are staying in. You request information on registration, read through the packet and complete the necessary forms to enroll your son. You do not give a second thought to whether or not your son will be enrolled in the school. You make plans of how to get all of the supplies that he will need for the first day of school, and then you receive news that the school has denied your son the right to enroll in this school.
This was my experience. Everything that I had was gone, and now it seemed as though I could not even provide an education for my child."
Under the law, a school is required to enroll a child first and settle his or her housing status second. If the school wants to dispute the homeless status of a child, they may do so with notice, but while the dispute is pending the child must continue to attend school. Keeping a child out of school can only create instability and greater confusion in their lives. More than a child who has permanent housing, homeless children need a place that is permanent and safe for them. Without the stability that only a school can provide, the opportunity for a happy and healthy future diminishes.
“Up until this point, I felt empowered to make things happen in life. All of my previous experiences including travelling, educational achievements, and years in the workforce—together with my understanding of the impact homelessness has on children, particularly African-American children— gave me the passion and motivation to ensure that my son’s educational needs were met.
I made numerous attempts to persuade the school district, including sending a certified letter to the superintendent that provided a clear and concise definition of McKinney-Vento law, and finally going to the Michigan Department of Education who then try to persuade the district, but were also ignored.
Once the behavior of the district was documented, the Michigan Department of Education provided the information on the National Law Center for Homelessness and Poverty. The moment I made contact with them I came to realize that I had not lost everything. They reminded me that I was not powerless. And, fortunately for my son, I was able to establish a relationship with The National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, people who share the common goals of policy advocacy, as well as public education. Now, Shiloh is doing very well in school.”
Homelessness can affect anyone. Its cycle: the loss of rights, criminalization, obstacles in accessing services and benefits, leads to greater difficulties in escaping its pull. It means the difference between falling down on your luck and becoming pigeonholed to the chronic neglect and misunderstanding of others. It is the stereotypes of homelessness that prevent many people from receiving the services they desperately need to break the cycle. We must protect those who are experiencing homelessness, and keep in mind that it is not just individuals we are standing up for, but families with children like Aleah and Shiloh.
“Homelessness is something that can happen to anyone, and at any time. I now truly understand that I although my circumstances seemed out of my control, I am not powerless. With all of my knowledge and life experiences-- I am power! I have been inspired and empowered by the work of this wonderful organization. They advocated for my son’s education and empowered me and enabled me to advocate on behalf of my son. Special thanks to Mrs. Lisa Curtis who stuck with me and Shiloh until all of his educational needs were met. I would also like to that Mrs. Pam Kies-Lowe, the State Coordinator for Homeless Education and her staff at the Michigan Department of Education.”
Home isn’t just a place; it’s a feeling too. It’s a refuge from all the things the world has imposed upon us. Danae had a house, but she didn’t have a home. "I was sexually molested when I was two. That's my first memory," Danae said. "I remember the smells, how I felt - everything that happened." Danae began wearing long-sleeved shirts to hide her bruises and finally, after years of abuse, she left the house and became a young, homeless, runaway youth.
Danae spent most of high school as an unaccompanied homeless youth. She then moved to Louisiana, enrolling in a local college to pursue her dream of becoming a doctor. Danae qualified for federal financial aid as an unaccompanied homeless youth because she had no ties to her parents. In order to afford an apartment, she worked 70 hours a week for rent and grocery money. “I’d go days without sleeping sometimes,” she said. “Just the stress of the jobs and trying to keep straight As, so I could get into medical school.”
Moving to Louisiana, while stressful, seemed like the greatest escape from her past and a giant leap toward a bright future. Unfortunately for Danae, this escape was soon threatened. Despite no support from her parents, the school claimed she wasn’t an unaccompanied youth and took away much of her financial aid. Danae defaulted on her loans, was in danger of being removed from school, and became homeless for the second time. The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) had a loophole in its protections for homeless youth, allowing a school to deny special considerations to those who were 22 and 23 years-old. Danae appealed to the college, but received no help – or even sympathy.
But even after all of that, even during those terrified nights spent in her car – afraid to fall asleep and afraid to wake up – Danae refused to be defeated. She reached out to the Law Center, and faced with her persistence and the Law Center’s advocacy, the school conceded its decision was wrong. Danae’s financial aid was reinstated, and she received her diploma, with medical school soon to follow! We honored Danae, as seen in the picture above, at our 14th annual McKinney-Vento Awards ceremony where she helped raise awareness about homeless students who, like her, experience hurdles they shouldn't have to while pursuing their education.
Carl Ellis, a 52 year-old U.S. Army Veteran, lived in a homeless shelter in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He joined the army at age 18, served his country, and was later honorably discharged. He faced numerous hurdles when trying to vote under Wisconsin's strict voter ID law, a law that disenfranchised more than 300,000 eligible voters, who comprise mostly low income and homeless people.
The law required the state to provide free ID cards. But people experiencing homelessness often lack the documents needed to obtain the ID (like a birth certificate) and must therefore pay to obtain them, meaning the ID is not free at all. Carl Ellis had repeatedly walked 40 minutes each way to the DMV, only to be denied an ID because his documentation was not in order. He sought the help of an agency and a church, both of which wrote letters indicating his residency as proof that he was eligible to obtain an ID card. And each time, Ellis would take these letters and his documentation, head on over to the DMV, only to be told his documents were not sufficient enough to give him the required ID needed to vote.
Testifying as part of the Law Center's lawsuit to protect voting rights in Wisconsin, Ellis shared with the court room, "if I can serve my country, I should be able to vote for who runs it...veterans and others who do not have a certain type of photo ID should not be kept from voting. These laws are undemocratic and un-American."
The Law Center couldn't agree more. And on Tuesday, April 29, 2014, the Law Center (with the help of the ACLU and our LEAP pro bono partner: Dechert LLP) won our case and the strict voter ID law was struck down! As the first case to strike down a voter ID law on these grounds, it sets precedent that will help prevent other states laws from enforcing similar laws. And for Carl Ellis, and the thousands of disenfranchised voters, the right to vote has been restored.
A 5-year-old Kindergartener Denied Schooling
In June 2013, Ms. Green contacted the Law Center requesting help in enrolling her 5-year-old son in kindergarten. Green had been unemployed since 2010 and had since depleted her savings and 40lk, and was saddled with student loan debt. Subsequently, Green and her son had to move in with her mother. She could not afford to keep her son in a private school, which had offered the speech therapy he needed. When she tried to enroll her son at a neighborhood school, which also offered speech therapy, the school denied her request because she could not provide proof of residency. This is a direct contravention of the McKinney-Vento Act, which states that schools must enroll students that present themselves as homeless even if students cannot provide otherwise required documents.
After receiving Green's plea for assistance, we resolved the matter by contacting the school and advocating on behalf of her son under the McKinney-Vento Act. Within a week, he was enrolled in kindergarten and his special educational needs were met. Green was very grateful for our assistance, and said that without our help, her son's academic progress may have been severely delayed.
Larry Shanks and Troy Minton: Their Right to Free Speech
Larry Shanks, a homeless man in Boise, Idaho is a street musician learning how to play for donations. Troy Minton is a homeless man who solicits money on the streets of Boise to pay for gas so that he can travel to and from the jobs he gets through temp agencies.
Boise's new anti-solicitation ordinance was going to take Larry's and Troy's ability to become financially stable. But the Law Center, in partnership with the ACLU of Idaho, challenged the ordinance - and won.
"I'm relieved," said Larry Shanks. "It's a huge weight off my shoulders. Every night I would go to bed thinking about what would happen if this passed. I am relieved for my family and the common citizens as their rights were also in trouble."
The criminalization of homelessness is on the rise in America, where many people are treated as criminals for begging on the streets. While panhandling is not a long-term solution for survival, in the short-run, it's the only means of survival for many homeless and poor people across the country.
"The truth is, I don't like to panhandle, but it's something I have to do in between jobs to survive," said Troy Minton. "People yell at me. They tell me to get a job and frequently shout insults at me." The key to ending homelessness is not to criminalize it, but to implement effective policies that can ensure homeless people can get stable housing and employment.
When cities criminalize homelessness, they are essentially exacerbating the problem and making it more difficult for homeless people to escape it. For example, if Troy Minton is arrested for panhandling, he could lose his job from the temp agency for having not shown up, he could also lose credibility with the temp agency, and his ability to find another job after being arrested would become even more difficult.
A Family Loses a Home - The Fight for Their Two Girls' Education
In October, 2013, a mother in Brunswick, Ohio contacted our office, desperately seeking help. The family had just lost their home and her daughters, ages 12 and 14, were about to be thrown out of their own school—simply because they were homeless. Frantic, their mother turned to the Law Center for help.
We advocated on behalf of the girls using the McKinney-Vento Act as arsenal. We were able to help quickly and effectively thanks to our innovative Project LEARN, through which we train volunteers across the country on the education rights of homeless children—empowering them to help address one of the most pressing issues in their communities and expanding our capacity beyond that of our small staff in Washington D.C. In just five days, we ensured that the girls could continue their education. They were able to stay in school and remain secure with their familiar teachers and friends. They also retained access to the breakfast and lunch that they received in school, while their father and mother searched for housing.