This article was produced in partnership with the Center for Public Integrity, The Seattle Times, Street Sense Media and WAMU/DCist.
Towanda Chew has gone to extraordinary lengths to prioritize her children’s education. Like many parents navigating homelessness, keeping this promise remains a harrowing challenge. It requires that she first keep them safe and sheltered.
“I wish I could have walked on the stage,” said Chew, who didn’t graduate from high school, but got her GED. “And that’s why I’m so hard on them about finishing school, going through that … I stay on them about that,” said Chew. She is a single mom to five daughters and two sons, two of whom still live with her.
After experiencing homelessness on and off for three years, Chew and her children finally moved into a subsidized apartment along Martin Luther King Jr Ave. in Southeast D.C. in 2020.
But her housing troubles were far from over. Soon after moving in, her toilet began overflowing, creating a stagnant two-inch pool of water that left a feces smell in her apartment. Even after contacting her landlord, she said she could not get the necessary repairs or relocate to a vacant unit within the building. The stench lingered for months. Then in September, someone broke into her apartment and damaged the lock on her front door. Again, she said her landlord failed to adequately respond. But these could be the least of her problems — her rental subsidy is time limited, so she’ll have to search for a new home regardless.
For a year, Chew tried to move the family into another apartment but her case manager, she said, was no help. Instead, Chew turned to an unlikely source: the staff at her children’s high school. In the end, it was her children’s school — not her government assigned caseworker – who finally helped her family find temporary shelter at a hotel.
Chew is just one of countless parents across the country who turn to their children’s schools for help while navigating housing instability. Under the landmark McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act of 1987, the U.S. Department of Education provides states, including D.C., with funding to support equal access to public education for homeless children and their families. Last academic year, D.C. public schools counted over 6,600 homeless students. However, a joint DCist/WAMU and Street Sense Media investigation using data from the Center for Public Integrity found some local schools serving a significant number of homeless students have not been getting those federal dollars.
In fact, for both school years analyzed (2018-19 and 2019-20), school systems with the highest percentage of homeless students were not awarded McKinney-Vento dollars. While some opted out of applying for the funding, the third-party reviewers for D.C.’s Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE) rejected applications from others. Among the schools that have missed out on this federal support is Maya Angelou Public Charter School, the place where Chew and her family received help navigating their housing issues. Despite the staff’s best efforts to support the increasing number of homeless students enrolled there, the school only sometimes receives McKinney-Vento funding. And they are more fortunate than most.
What is the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Grant?
Federal law requires state education agencies, D.C. included, to ensure each homeless child has “equal access” to “appropriate public education.” The law is a section under the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, which also authorizes the U.S. Department of Education to provide money to states to help achieve that mandate: the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Grant.
But it’s not nearly enough. U.S. Department of Education data shows that D.C. received $274,000 in 2018 and $289,760 in 2019. With somewhere between 7,700 and 7,100 homeless students in D.C. schools those years, which some advocates believe to be an undercount, that would be roughly $35 to $40 per student. Instead, the federal government requires the subgrants distributed by states to be competitive, and some D.C. schools with the highest rates of homelessness don’t receive help.
Between 2018 and 2020, there were eight local education agencies — all charter schools — where over a fifth of the student population was considered homeless for both school years, according to the federal data analyzed by DCist/WAMU, Street Sense Media and Public Integrity. Only one of them received McKinney-Vento dollars those years: Maya Angelou Public Charter School, which has multiple campuses. It also educates incarcerated young men at the city’s New Beginnings center. The school received the subgrant in the academic year 2018-19 when 26% of the student population was counted as homeless, but not the following year when that number jumped to 31%.
Meanwhile, D.C. Public Schools received the subgrant both years, with 6-7% of its student population counted as homeless. That still accounts for several thousand homeless students because DCPS is the largest local education agency — with 115 schools — and has nearly 50,000 students. Students in D.C. are split almost evenly between DCPS and the various public charter schools.
Fred Lewis, an OSSE spokesperson, said the local agency uses external reviewers to determine which school systems receive funding. “Grants are awarded based on ranking, which considers the strength of the LEA’s application, the number of students served and the amount of funds available,” Lewis said in an emailed statement.
Charter officials said applying for the opportunity can be challenging for smaller public school districts – and if they are lucky enough to get the money, how schools may spend those dollars is restricted. For instance, it generally can’t be used for food or housing.
Schools that don’t get the subgrant do what they can to support unhoused families. But some parents have described instances where their school community fell short of ensuring their kids have educational opportunities comparable to classmates with stable housing.
Historically, the McKinney-Vento grant was the only government funding routinely available to specifically support homeless students, which the law defines broadly as children who “lack a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence.” The only other recurring government support for local schools serving poor communities is the D.C. government’s funding for “at-risk” students, an even broader category that describes nearly half the students in D.C. As a temporary response to the COVID-19 pandemic, The American Rescue Plan released unprecedented dollars to states for homeless students, which OSSE said enabled D.C. to provide federal funding to all 69 local education agencies (DC Public Schools and 68 charter school systems).
The kinds of support homeless students need to learn
Maya Angelou Public Charter School is partially paying for Chew’s hotel through American Rescue Plan dollars, according to L'Tanya Holley, the school’s director of operations who’s coordinated services for unhoused families for over a decade.
But those dollars are temporary – Maya Angelou is spending down its second and final round of funding. And the school does not regularly get the McKinney-Vento subgrant.
“We went through hell and back, but they was here helping me,” said Chew of school staff, “I call Ms. Holley my angel. Because she’s been there.”
The pair met in 2017, around the time when Chew was looking for a school to enroll her son in before he turned 18. After getting “the run around” at other schools, the family landed at Maya Angelou. The school opted to arrange temporary shelter for Chew and her family after Holley visited the subsidized apartment. Chew was also able to lean on the school’s monthly grocery distribution for toilet paper and food, a program made possible by private donations.
“Kids cannot learn on an empty stomach and they can't learn worrying about where they're going to sleep or worrying about their mother or their parents,” said Holley.
But not every school is as nurturing as Maya Angelou — Spring Woodall experienced the headache of an unsupportive staff at Plummer Elementary, a DCPS school a mile away from Maya Angelou. Woodall enrolled her son in the 2021-22 school year as a pre-k student while they were living in a shelter across town.
During that time, Woodall said despite repeatedly reaching out to her son’s principal and homeless student liaison, he was never given a free uniform or a backpack, even though McKinney-Vento dollars are intended to go toward purchasing items like these and DCPS is routinely awarded the subgrant. Woodall had to pay about $100 for uniforms out of pocket — money she didn’t have to spare.
“I just had to do it, you know?” Woodall said.
Nearly a month into the school year, Woodall was promised a “Kids Ride Free” card to get her son to and from school. But since her son was 4 years old, he was too young to qualify. Eventually, the school offered her a SmarTrip card, but the commute to and from the shelter was also an hour and a half each way.
“It's like a slap in the face,” Woodall said. “Waking up early, giving them a bath, only to bring them into this system that barely cares about him. And this is the nation's capital.”
Woodall struggled to get her son to school and was almost in “the danger zone” of absences and truancies. This would have been preventable if the school offered Lyft or Uber credit for her to use, she said.
Woodall eventually sought legal help at the National Youth Law Center. Her lawyer suspected Plummer was in violation of the McKinney-Vento Act and filed a dispute on behalf of Woodall.
In emails obtained by WAMU/DCist and Street Sense Media, Woodall and her lawyer were told in response to the dispute that Plummer lacked the funds to provide transportation services other than the “Kids Ride Free” or a SmarTrip card. After a couple of conference calls with representatives from D.C. Public Schools, the case was considered resolved but resulted in little additional support for Woodall and her son. Woodall now lives in an apartment she moved into in February, with her son attending a different school.
Plummer Elementary did not respond to requests for further comment.
DCPS spokesperson Enrique Gutierrez says grants go to its central office to support all schools with homeless students. In testimony submitted to the Council last year, DCPS said McKinney-Vento dollars are budgeted for professional development, technology equipment like 150 Wi-Fi devices, school supplies and uniforms and transportation support.
Gutierrez declined to comment on the situation at Plummer, only saying: “We will continue to work tirelessly to ensure that every displaced child and youth experiencing homelessness has the equal and necessary resources to academically succeed regardless of their current housing situation.”
Unpredictable and insufficient dollars for growing number of homeless students
The Office of the State Superintendent of Education distributes the McKinney-Vento funding as subgrants to schools with significant student populations navigating housing instability. They range between $600 and $86,000 and may go toward specialized personnel, supplemental instruction, referral services, school supplies. Yet several school districts that fall under this category and others OSSE prioritizes were not awarded dollars in the two school years analyzed: 2018-19 and 2019-20.
The school districts with the highest percentage of homeless students for 2018-19 – Monument Academy Public Charter School and Cedar Tree Academy Public Charter School – applied for McKinney-Vento dollars and requested $20,000 and $16,000 respectively, according to records obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request. However the OSSE rejected their requests. (Both schools have applied for and received funding in subsequent years.)
Various charter officials have attributed their relatively high percentage of homeless students to their mission of serving vulnerable populations and their process of identifying homeless families who may need extra support during enrollment. Monument CEO, Dr. Jeffrey Grant, says the boarding school was founded to serve young people in the foster care system but has since expanded its pursuit to include other at-risk youth.
Meanwhile, some of the largest local education agencies received funding despite significantly lower rates of student homelessness, including $85,600 for DCPS and $38,000 for KIPP DC Public Charter School. But several smaller charters were also awarded McKinney-Vento funds during that time, suggesting headcount is not the determining factor.
Within the large DCPS system, some individual schools have higher percentages of homeless students. Anacostia High School considers 13% of its student population to be homeless. And the school’s homeless liaison, Jocelyn Coleman, believes that to be an undercount. She attributes undercounting to the stigma associated with homelessness.
“Nobody, especially a teenager, wants to be known as somebody who doesn't have a family or the family has kicked them out. Or they're living from house to house,” Coleman said. “To them, it's an embarrassment. And so a lot of the teenagers don't say anything to anybody.”
Coleman also says the school doesn’t have enough money to support unhoused students, requiring staff to solicit donations, particularly anything extra like non-uniform clothing for the weekend. “We look at their needs, but they also have wants, too,” Coleman said.
A separate analysis from the Center for Public Integrity estimates that thousands of public school districts are undercounting homeless students, missing an estimated 300,000 students nationwide.
While OSSE data shows that the total number of students experiencing homelessness in D.C. has largely trended down since 2016, that’s not every school district's experience. For example, the charter Rocketship Public Schools counted twice as many homeless students between 2016 and 2020, according to OSSE data.
The charter school had among the highest percentage of homeless students among local education agencies in academic years 2018-19 and 2019-20 but did not get McKinney-Vento dollars. Public records show Rocketship Public Schools has never applied for the funding since 2016. The charter did not respond to requests for comment.
In the years that Maya Angelou PCS didn’t get McKinney-Vento dollars, Holley said her school has had to dip into the school’s budget for other expenses and fundraise more. She’s even asked her friends to chip in.
“It is very stressful because you got to steal from Peter to pay Paul,” said Holley. “I hate to have to tell a parent or a child ‘I’m sorry. I can’t.’ In my 15 years, I’ve gotten very creative.”
Why smaller schools have a harder time securing McKinney- Vento funding
The application process is thorough, asking school districts to provide a detailed budget and plan for tracking spending and evaluating its impact, according to Anna Scudiero, the development director at Monument Academy Public Charter School. “I, full-time, work on writing grants and things like that for the school. A lot of schools don't have a dedicated person to sit around and complete applications,” she said.
Having recently taken on that role, Scudiero didn’t write the applications for the academic years Monument Academy’s requests for McKinney-Vento funding were rejected. But when she reviewed them afterward she said she thought they were “bare.”
“It just didn't include the level of information that they were looking for. Even though it answered the questions,” she said. “I kind of think if you're serving the student population that you should automatically get additional funding to support them instead of making it a competitive process.”
The principal of Roots Public Charter School, where over a quarter of students are homeless, said her staff has given up on applying for McKinney-Vento dollars. “I have been told by my Homeless Liaison that the reason we’re not interested is that it takes too much time and effort to apply when it’s already known that only the big schools ever get it,” said Bernida Thompson. “It’s a waste of time for small schools to put the energy and time into trying to compete.” The school has roughly 120 students.
The OSSE spokesperson contested that claim, saying “Although larger [local education agencies] may be perceived as having a slight advantage due to typically having larger numbers of students experiencing homelessness, LEAs with a smaller number of students served have received funding in the past as well.” For example, Lewis said a school with only eight reported homeless students received McKinney-Vento funds in 2015.
In the 2018-19 academic year, 17 local education agencies applied for new funding, and five were awarded, according to public records. For the 2019-20 school year, four local education agencies applied and one received it. OSSE told the D.C. Council only one school district was awarded new funding that year “due to limited available funds.” (Three other schools that received money the previous year also received some continued funding for 2019-20.)
Schools with high rates of homeless students are not receiving subgrants at the state level because there’s simply not enough federal money to go around, according to Maria Foscarinis, the founder of the National Homelessness Law Center. She was also involved in the creation of the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, which she says is the first and last time Congress passed a sweeping bill on homelessness.
“The funding for this program has always been very limited,” Foscarinis said. "If this were actually an entitlement with these funds, then they would be awarded based on how many homeless kids there were. But it's not, it's a fixed amount of money and it has to be divided some way."
And for over a decade starting in 1995, the District chose to not accept McKinney-Vento funds and thus was able to skirt federal law. The Department of Education’s only means of enforcing equal access to public education for homeless students is to withhold funding from a state.
“It was the only jurisdiction that did not accept the money and did not participate in the program,” Foscarinis said. By not accepting funds, the District remained in legal standing with a lawsuit — filed by unhoused families and the National Homelessness Law Center — against the city for not complying with the McKinney-Vento Act.
The District did not accept McKinney-Vento funds until 2006, when the D.C. Board of Education requested the superintendent reapply for funds, according to Foscarinis.
Schools try and fill in the gaps without federal homeless dollars
Tameka Harris and her two children experienced homelessness in late 2012 and early 2013. At the beginning of the 2013-14 school year, Harris enrolled her two sons at Kingsman Academy, a public charter school near Kingman Park that teaches six to 12 graders.
Kingsman has not received McKinney-Vento funds since at least 2016. But Harris said the school provided an abundance of resources for her family, including transportation, therapy, laundry services, a food pantry, and laptops for her children to get their work done.
“It's life-saving, actually,” Harris said. “It got us through. I was able to save money.”
When Harris was working as a bus driver and tour guide she would have to be at work by 6 a.m. and was unable to bring her children to school. But Kingsman provided Uber rides to school for her kids — like Woodall had hoped Plummer Elementary would do for her situation – and eventually modified the bus route so her kids could be picked up right in front of her apartment.
Back at Maya Angelou, L'Tanya Holley strategizes how she can help her school’s families without McKinney-Vento dollars. She’ll advise parents without internet access to go to the local Starbucks for free WiFi or guide students to shelters that have available beds. Acting as a case manager, Holley will even try and get parents a job so they can be self-sufficient.
Chew just landed herself a job with help from Holley. She is now working at a church in Northwest. Holley identified the opportunity and helped her prepare for the interview. Before that, Chew had been cutting people’s lawns for cash.
“I’ve got to do what I got to do because I got my daughter, and my other daughter, and I got a 13 and 17-year-old,” said Chew. “They can't do it all,” she said of Maya Angelou staff, “because it's for other people out there too, not just me.”
This article has been updated to clarify that McKinney-Vento was the only significant federal legislation on homelessness.