Sixth Graders Demand Equal Rights for District Homeless Community

Alex Zielinski

Enthusiastic cheers, colorful, hand-painted signs, and bright raincoats cut through a recent cloudy Wednesday outside D.C. City Hall.

“We live, we breathe, we all are the same,” the group of ralliers chanted as the marched around the block, protected from mid-morning traffic by a police barricade.

But the marchers’ shouts weren’t the only reason city staffers and curious tourists stopped to watch. Aside from a few teacher chaperones, the group consisted of nearly 100 impassioned sixth graders.

On June 3, a quarter of Alice Deal Middle School’s sixth-grade class spent the school’s annual day of giving rallying for homeless rights at City Hall. The result of months researching homeless issues, writing letters to council members, and interviewing the homeless population in their own Tenleytown neighborhood, the student’s rally aimed to bring serious city attention to the issues surrounding homeless rights. Based on the turnout of city officials and the event’s well-organized orchestration, it did just that.

“You are an inspiration for all of us,” At-large Councilmember Anita Bonds told the students crowding City Hall’s front steps. “Homelessness should not happen in D.C. Your fight is my fight.”

The students worked with the National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH) and considered NCH’s previously collected data to learn about local discrimination issues. The data—indicating that roughly two-thirds of homeless individuals have perceived discrimination — cemented the student’s commitment to the cause.

Bonds recently came out in support of the NCH’s effort to amend D.C.’s Human Rights Act of 1977 by adding “homelessness” as a fully protected class; this was exciting news to advocates of all ages.

“[Anti-discrimination legislation] was  being composed by [Ward 5 Councilmember] Kenyan McDuffie,” Bonds said, “I was really looking forward to supporting it.”

Bonds noted that the council will soon begin their summer recess. She said she is hopeful that when the council reconvenes in mid-September they will begin talks on adding homelessness as a protected class in anti-discrimination legislation.

There was some “push back” according to Bonds, which made it clear the legislation would not pass before the recess.

There needs to be at least two sessions of debate and voting, Bonds said, and there are only two sessions left before recess; tomorrow (June 16) and July 3.

“My request for you is to keep the pressure on us at City Hall and the community to make changes,” Bonds said.

Kristy Greenwalt, newly appointed director of the city’s Interagency Council on Homelessness, also addressed the group, sharing her anti-discrimination goals within the new administration.

“You have made me very optimistic about the future of homelessness in DC,” she told the group, and later added that she’s never worked with advocates so young before. “Their compassion for the homeless blows me away.”

She wasn’t alone in this response.

“It’s exciting getting young people to take issue with something so important to our community,” said Robert Warren, executive director of the People for Fairness Coalition who was once homeless himself.

Alice Deal Principal James Albright made City Hall his first stop before visiting the school’s other classes that were out volunteering on Wednesday. The fact that these sixth graders have spent their school year learning about homeless issues made this rally that much more authentic, he said.

“Kids need these kinds of crystallizing moments at this age,” Albright said. “It’s a very powerful thing to learn that your voice can bring real change.”

The youth in attendance at the Alice Deal Middle School rally really gave Bonds hope for the future.

“I sincerely was so encouraged to see the young faces,” Bonds said of the sixth graders.

She believes that the sixth graders really helped further the cause because “young people really make society listen.”

“I just want to say, I feel really strongly that when all is reviewed about the plight of the homeless in society, we can really thank the students of ADMS,” Bonds said, “they really made a difference.”

Issues |Civil Rights

Region |Washington DC

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