After John McNamara was killed in the Capital Gazette shooting, his wife Andrea Chamblee took it upon herself to publish his last book — a love letter to D.C. hoops: "The Capital of Basketball."
About 6% of K-12 students in D.C. are homeless or housing-insecure — that’s almost double the students District officials counted in 2014.
D.C. schools offer help in the form of subsidized materials, transportation assistance, and more. But identifying the students who need help can be an obstacle. Keeping track of those students, who are often transient, and making sure they’re getting what they need is another issue entirely.
As part of metro D.C.’s annual “homelessness media blitz” we’ll introduce you to a local student who’s experienced homelessness — and two advocates who are helping young people like him find stability and success.
Produced by Maura Currie
Special Coverage Note
This segment is part of our 2019 contribution to the DC Homeless Crisis Reporting Project, in collaboration with other local newsrooms. You can see all of the collective work published throughout the day at DCHomelessCrisis.press and join the public Facebook group to discuss how to act on this information – and add context to areas that may have been overlooked.
KOJO NNAMDIYou're tuned in to The Kojo Nnamdi Show on WAMU 88.5. Welcome. Today is a special broadcast for us. As part of Street Sense Media's annual "Homelessness Media Blitz" we're dedicating the hour to frank discussions of the day to day faced by people in poverty. Later in the broadcast we'll talk about addressing hunger through the DMV region and what it takes to deal with back to school season when you're a homeless student. But first we'd like to tell you a little bit more about this media campaign, because we're far from the only team reporting on this today. Joining us now by phone to tell us more is Eric Falquero. Eric is the Editor-in-Chief at Street Sense Media. Eric Falquero, thank you for joining us.
ERIC FALQUEROThanks for having me, Kojo. It's a pleasure to be with you.
NNAMDIEric, let's start with the basics. What is the "Homelessness Media Blitz?"
FALQUEROThis is a collaborative project. We're in our fourth year and this year we have 10 newsrooms across the city all contributing stories about homelessness. The way it works is that we all make a commitment to each other to share what we're working on in advance in order to avoid duplicating efforts. And by doing that we force ourselves to report a deeper more comprehensive and collective package about homelessness since none of us are, you know, over reporting the same thing.
FALQUEROAnd this all started with a project nowhere near D.C., but with the San Francisco Chronicle and a similar kind of collaboration out west also four years ago. I read about it in the New York Times and we took about a month then to try and copy it. And DCist and Think Progress were our two early partners that year. And we've worked to expand and grow and be more thoughtful about it and reach more people ever since.
NNAMDIWhere else can listeners expect to find stories today?
FALQUEROSo today obviously we have your segment now and the WAMU newsroom also had a story. DCist again has been a partner from day one and they have a collection of stories out today. The D.C. Line has several stories and several pieces of commentary out today. The new issue of Washington City Paper that just came out this morning has two stories in it. The GW Hatchet has a story they just posted there. They're the first student press to be involved with us. We're pretty excited about that. The District Dig, a politics investigative site has a story coming up. This year was the first year that we collaborated with Washington Post Express. So some folks may have seen a story on page six there, and the writer editor that worker on that started with us in a previous year when he worked current newspapers.
FALQUEROIt's just really incredible to watch this grow and expand over time. And I'd be remiss if I didn't also mention 730DC, the newsletter, they also had a contributor and an original story in place -- collection.
NNAMDIHow is this similar to and different from media campaigns in other cities? This happened in several cities earlier this summer.
FALQUEROYeah, because we were modeling after the San Francisco project we've always tried to line up with them. And in that way also have a national media day. When we were coordinating for this year, San Francisco had wanted to push back a bit and while we were still talking scheduling they found a sponsor. And so they all of a sudden had to sort of coordinate around that. And it ended up being at the end of July, which for D.C. there's a lot of folks out of town. We didn't know that we were going to reach as many people. And since we're already pushing back we thought if we push forward on a day towards the end of August we're close to when D.C. Council returns and maybe these stories that we cover and talk about today can be part of agenda setting there. And make some folks think more deeply about homelessness in our city.
NNAMDIWhat else --
FALQUEROSo we very much want to share the work that's going on nationally, but we want to do what's best for our community and our readers.
NNAMDIBesides the D.C. Council being influenced what do you hope to accomplish with this year's media blitz, what else?
FALQUEROMy biggest focus this year is trying to make this more than a day and to engage with readers. So we don't want to talk at people. We want to talk with the, right. So I've been asking everyone to help encourage folks to join a Facebook group that we started in line with this project. It's not a Street Sense group. It's D.C. Homeless Crisis Solutions group. It's open to anyone. It's a public group. And we're hoping that we can start a lot of conversations today with all of the great reporting that all of our newsroom partners have put together, but that we can continue those conversations and start new ones moving forward. Everyone in that group has the power to start posts, comment, etcetera. I'm sort of hoping it takes on a life of its own. It can be a truly citywide forum that can connect people that are concerned about this issue and want to be more involved.
NNAMDIAnd how does this tie in to the work you do with Street Sense Media?
FALQUEROYou know, my philosophy on this is always -- well, Street Sense's mission is to see an end to homelessness in D.C. We are a non-profit newspaper. We're, you know, non-partisan objective reporting. But we do have that social service side where we provide no barrier jobs. You know, there's a 130 Street Sense Media vendors that earn an income managing their own sales business with our papers around town. So on an individual level we're trying to give people the opportunity to work their way out of homelessness. But on the macro level we do accountability journalism and raise awareness through features, etcetera, to try and address the larger systemic issues that keep people in poverty. So in trying to get more and more people talking in a meaningful way about solutions to homelessness, we're trying to just extend that macro mission.
FALQUEROYou know, we have a very niche focus and therefore a very niche audience. And we want to reach all of the other audiences of all the other newsrooms participating here. They don't need to hear about, you know, what's working and what's not regarding homelessness from us. You know, they can hear about it from you, Kojo. They can hear about it from Washington City Paper. They can hear about from DCist. They can hear about in the Express. We just want to get the information out there and push the conversation forward.
FALQUEROSo I just see this as an excellent opportunity for a lot of different communities, audiences and the newsrooms that serve them to come together and get involved to tackle some of the biggest things we face as a community. And I'd say that one of the most meaningful things that as a journalist I've been told by folks that have worked on this is that it influenced how they thought about their story planning and their coverage throughout the year long term not just about for this day. So I think if we can do more of that, we're on the right track.
NNAMDIEric Falquero, thank you so much for joining us.
FALQUEROThank you. And I look forward to listening to the rest of your segments today.
NNAMDIEric Falquero is the Editor-in-Chief at Street Sense Media. We're going to take a short break. When we come back we'll talk about what it takes to deal with back to school season when you're a homeless student. And then later in the hour we'll talk about addressing hunger through the DMV region. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIStudents across the District are readjusting to their back to school routines. And if memory serves me correctly, which it sometimes does, it's hard enough to get focused and ready for the year in the best of circumstances. For the over 5,000 students in D.C., who are homeless, the challenges are even more pressing. Sure, they might need help with homework, but they might also need help getting school supplies, healthcare, even something as simple as a haircut. And the impact of having those resources and of not having them can make or break a child's ability to succeed. Homeless students in D.C. are in an at-risk category that consistently performs lower than average on standardized tests. Joining me now to talk about what homeless students need to succeed is Jermaine Lemons. Jermaine Lemons is the program director for The Neediest Kids organization. Jermaine, thank you for joining us.
JERMAINE LEMONSThank you for having me.
NNAMDIAlso with us is Lamont Geddis. Lamont is the Director of the JC Nalle Community School and the Kennedy Street Freedom movement. Lamont, thank you for joining us.
LAMONT GEDDISThank you for having me.
NNAMDIAnd Yassine is a participant in the Sasha Bruce Youthwork program. Yassine, thank you very much for joining us.
YASSINEThank you for having me.
NNAMDIYassine, let's start with you. To the extent that you're comfortable, tell us about yourself and how you ended up not having a permanent home.
YASSINEYeah. It started out when I came from Morocco. I was born and raised in Morocco. And then I came to America when I was 13. You know, when family issues begins to get intense especially like, you know, losing your mom at a young age and then now you have a family member like abusing you, and, you know, you kind of like don't have that connection with family like you wish you would have like a close bond relationship. And so after, you know, I converted from Islam to Christianity I was, you know, kicked out. And as a result of that I had to find my own place. And it kind of like made it difficult for me to move in my progress, yeah.
NNAMDIAnd this happened while you were still in high school, right? So how did that affect your ability to focus on school and to graduate?
YASSINEWell, having like family issues again it was hard to focus in school. After having a bad day with a family member you are not able to focus on school 100 percent accurately the way you wish to. And then it puts a big gap in your time by not, you know, obtaining your high school diploma at a certain amount of time that you expect to get it.
NNAMDIHow do you get your high school diploma?
YASSINEWell, I started out with a GED and I have to waste a lot of money. Man, it was like, you know, it was difficult and I continue to persevere in -- you know, and then I ended up going to Roosevelt High School and just, you know, getting my own diploma.
NNAMDIDid you enjoy the traditional high school experience?
YASSINEYes. Yes. They offered a lot of help.
NNAMDIHow are you doing now? And what does Sasha Bruce Youthwork provide that's helped you?
YASSINEWell, after experiencing a long period of like suffering, like, you know, financially. And having to rely on other people, which is like a very painful thing especially, when it comes to like, you know, having to live under someone's paycheck or, you know, pleasing men and, you know, shame and all that. I didn't felt like it was, you know, something I wanted to do. But it turns out that when I found this program they had almost like most of the resources I was looking for. A person alone wouldn't be able to do what 10 people would do in one organization. It's like, you know, how I came across to think about it.
NNAMDIWell, that's how the Sasha Bruce Youthwork program has been assisting you. Lamont Geddis, your schools work mostly with students, who are younger than Yassine. How does that change what assistance they need even just in afterschool programs?
GEDDISWell, the programs that I work with, the Freedom School programs in Washington D.C. are specifically there to serve students, who are homeless. And when you're talking about serving homeless elementary school students, of course, this is not a problem that belongs solely to them. It's a family's issue. It's their mother, their father that's going through a crisis now that these young people are almost traumatized, because they have no home to go to do things like homework, which is a part of everyday conversation, the language that we use.
GEDDISSo at programs that we run we try not to let it be the sole focus that the children are homeless, because the one thing that they all have in common is that they're children. That they want to be loved. They want to be protected and they want to be safe. And so we give them that type of environment and we teach them things about themselves that they might not have known. So all of the books that we provide for those children are culturally relevant and that means that they can meet a character going through a similar situation they might be going through in their own life. But this character shows a sense of triumph at the end of the book.
GEDDISAnd then at the end of the book, the children don't necessarily have to put that book back on the bookshelf. They're allowed to take it with them. I would say home with them, but homeless is an issue. So I'll just say that they can take the book and regift it or reread it or reshare it. There's a sense of empowerment with the Freedom School program that we try to share with our children. I remember this summer when we had a six week program throughout the District of Columbia in Ward 7 and in Ward 4. And I remember we did a national day of service where all of the children got together and spoke about the things that were important to them. And one issue across the District that was important is gun violence. It's ridiculous.
GEDDISThey all stated how it impacted their families, how it impacted them personally. And I watched elementary school age students who were empowered, who were not focused on the fact that they did not have a home. But they made signs that said things like, "Protect children, not guns" and they made chants. And we all went down to the Capitol and they like young people from the 60s a part of the Civil Rights movement banned together with the young people that they have not met across the District, but who had a very similar message. Homelessness was not the issue. It was about gun violence.
NNAMDIAnd we've had several broadcasts here including road shows about gun violence and how it affects children and students in particular. How much of that gun violence takes place near schools, as a matter of fact. So I do --
GEDDISIt's plaguing our community.
NNAMDIIt certainly is. Jermaine, you're the director of an organization that works with public schools throughout the region. Tell us about The Neediest Kids program, where it is and what it offers.
LEMONSYeah. So The Neediest Kids program is a program of the National Center for Children and Families. The Neediest Kids has been in existence for over 40 years. It was originally started by a gentleman by the name of Thomas Cookerly over at WJLA, and he saw that there was a need for students in D.C. Students who were affected by their, you know, current financial situation that was no fault of their own, but they were lacking in the things that they needed to succeed in a school. So he wanted to make a difference in that. So we originally started with D.C. public schools. We are currently in nine school districts looking to add our tenth school district this coming school year in Howard County. So we're currently in both D.C. public schools and D.C. charter schools. We're in four school district in Maryland and also four school districts in Virginia.
NNAMDIWhat's the most in demand service or product you offer to students?
LEMONSI would say the most in demand service we offer right is the food assistance and I would say glasses.
LEMONSEye glasses. We offer -- we currently partner with Vision Works and we're able to provide a student to go and a get an eye exam, as well as a pair of eye glasses. And I will say that that creates the most impact in that student's academic career being able to just simply see the board. I mean, I myself wear glasses. I remember that time when I found out I needed to wear glasses. So it changed a lot of things for me. It changed a lot of things.
NNAMDIBut interestingly your program is not referred to as Neediest Kids in schools. What's the other name for the program and why the difference?
LEMONSExactly. So inside the schools our program is called Bridge to Success because, you know, if you think about it no one wants to be labeled as a neediest kid at all. You know, so we still have the name overall, but inside the schools is referred to the Bridge to Success program. That way because part of our program we want the students and their families that receive their services from us to still have dignity. We don't want to single them out. We don't want them to feel bad about being in their situation. We just want to let them know that hey, we're here to help remove whatever barrier it is that you're facing, to help your family and your child succeed in school and reach their full potential.
NNAMDILamont Geddis, we got a call from Lisa who couldn't stay on the line who said, how is the outreach getting out to the children that are homeless that may not be staying in shelter or part of a program?
GEDDISWell, it's through shows like this that we get the word out, but our program we work with the Short term Family Housing programs that are new to the District of Columbia. And we have partnered with many organizations that have been involved with working with homeless youth. Programs like TCP, the Community Partners, DHR, United Way. Of course, The Neediest Kids have helped us out a lot. I can even tell you about a situation where we wanted to take our Freedom Schools students on a trip and The Neediest Kids provided our students with tickets to a professional basketball game.
GEDDISAnd the conversation that I had with just one youth was, you know, I was explaining to him how excited I was to be going. And he was like, this is my first time ever going to a basketball game. I was like, A professional basketball game, it's the first time seeing the Wizards? He was like, No. This is my first time ever going to a basketball game just ever.
GEDDISPeriod. And it was because of The Neediest Kids that we were able to do that type of activity.
NNAMDIYou make a point of providing experiences outside the classroom. Why?
GEDDISYes, because the classroom is just one place for learning. And stereotypically -- and it's funny that I say this as a former principal with DCPS. But I know that learning does not start or stop within one's class. Actually your first teachers are your mom and your dad. And while students are going through this type of experience -- and I'll just say a temporary experience of homelessness it's important for us the other individuals in the community to wrap around these children and provide them with educational opportunities that will be passed where they are sitting.
NNAMDIIt's important to understand that many of these students have had difficult childhoods in many ways and might have missed out on things as simple as birthdays. Could you share a story with us in that vein?
GEDDISSo I would love to actually. It was actually this past August. My birthday is in the beginning of August and I've had over four decades of popular birthdays and gifts. But this year I decided to donate my birthday to the students at the homeless shelter at the Freedom School. And so all of my friends, who typically give me gift cards and money, I asked if they not give it to me. But they buy something for the students at the Freedom School. So we brought cakes and toys and any student who was born in August or during the summer we celebrated their birthday. And the students tried to turn around and say, Mr. Geddis, this is your birthday. I said, No. This is for you. I saw smiles. I saw teeth. I things that just made me happy, because I child said to me, My birthday is normally invisible. Nobody ever sees it.
GEDDISAnd it's because they have so many other things that they're worried about. Of course, it's just another day on the calendar. But to us it is something special. You're a rock star for one day. And that's what's important to us with the Freedom School and in the National Center for Children and Families and the students that we serve.
NNAMDIJermaine, what's your sense of how the services you provide through Neediest Kids impacts students long term?
LEMONSI mean, I believe it definitely impacts students long term, and you have to think about it. A lot of the students we help, you know, they're in elementary, middle school even high school, but these are times when they just need a little something to help them reach their full potential. And, you know, I think that us providing the services that we provide whether it be glasses, whether it be clothing, whether it be shoes, food assistance or, you know, whatever it is I believe that it helps them feel normal. You know, it helps them be able to close the gap with their peers and be able to, you know, reach their full potential.
NNAMDIYassine, talk a little bit about what services the Sasha Bruce Youthwork program provides for you that you think can help you in the long term.
YASSINEOne of the things that I was not able to do on my own is to like pay for the gown for the graduation. And they offered, you know, like $175 for that. And they are also currently helping me to start a new chapter with UDC College. Other than that it was just they expect me to like, you know, tell them, this is what I want to do with my life. This is my career. This is my plan. And as long as I am doing my part, they are welcome to, you know, offer their best.
NNAMDIThey offer job training too, don't they?
YASSINEThey offer like ways in how to get connected to an organization that does that.
NNAMDIProvides job training.
NNAMDILamont Geddis, similar question. For younger students especially, how do programs like this help them long term and even trickle up to an entire family?
GEDDISIt's not about things. It's about how you feel. It's about empowerment and what we give our children sense of how they can change their situation by being able to make a difference. Actually that's our theme throughout the year is "I can make a difference in myself. I can a make a difference in my family, my community, my country, my world." And if you notice you start off with your simple self and then you can say, well, I'm eight. I can make a difference in myself. But how can I make a difference in my family? Now how can I make a difference in my community? And that changes for each child. But they can make a difference in their family by, I can help my mom by just helping my little brother or sister. I can help my dad by picking up this trash when he doesn't have to ask me. And those are things that we are teaching in children in our Freedom School that they can take and hopefully teach to their own children. That's long term effect.
NNAMDIHere's Debbie in Washington D.C. Debbie, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
DEBBIEThank you so much. I just wanted to bring in to the discussion some more detail about the many opportunities that there are for young people, who are disconnected from their families to connect. I'm Debbie Shore and I'm the Executive Director of Sasha Bruce, and so I'm so proud of Yassine for being there today and speaking about his story. But I wanted to make sure people understood that there is an array of services available to young people, who are disconnected, which is a different set of circumstances that young people face than those, who are with their families.
DEBBIEAnd we'd have street outreach vans that are going out every night.
NNAMDIDon't have a lot of time left. How can people access those services?
DEBBIEThere is a hotline called that is at 546-7777. There are two drop in centers that young people can access through those means or by connecting up with one of the outreach vans. And they can always just drop in on to a number of places because there is a lot of coordination in our system.
NNAMDIIs there a website?
DEBBIEWell, a website is www.sashabruce.org.
NNAMDIThat's it. Thank you so much for your call. Jermaine, we don't have a lot of time left. But you work pretty extensively with D.C. public schools, but you're actually privately funded, right? What kind of challenges does that pose?
LEMONSI mean, yeah, we are 100 percent privately funded. So we work with -- like I said, we work with nine going on 10 school districts. And we provide them with a lot of resources. I mean, on average we help upwards of 40,000 students on a yearly basis. I mean, it's a quarter of a million students in this area, who are experiencing homelessness or poverty. But, you know, we're trying to do what we can. But we do need your help. We need the help of everyone in this area. This is a very affluent area. There a lot of people here with money, resources and there are students that will need them. You know, you may not see it in your neighborhood, but there are students in this area that need them. So, please, support us. You can feel free to visit our website at the National Center for Children and Families. That's www.nccf-cares.org.
NNAMDIJermaine Lemons is the Program Director for The Neediest Kids organization. Thank you for joining us.
LEMONSYou're welcome. Thank you.
NNAMDILamont Geddis is the Director of the JC Nalle Community School and the Kennedy Street Freedom School. Lamont, good to see you. Thank you for joining us.
GEDDISThank you. Thank you very much for having me.
NNAMDIAnd Yassine is a participant in the Sasha Bruce Youthwork program. Yassine, thank you joining us and good luck to you.
NNAMDIWe're going to take a short break. When we come back we will be talking about the issues faced by people in poverty when it comes to addressing hunger in the DMV region. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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