Eliza Dahlkemper is 11 years old. Like many of her classmates at Alice Deal Middle School, she doesn’t see homeless people in the District’s leafy and well-heeled Chevy Chase neighborhood.
Like many in Washington, a city with one of the nation’s biggest income gaps between rich and poor, a gap reflected by economic geography, Eliza didn’t even know there were homeless people in Washington. But family homelessness is exploding, and volunteers combed the streets one night recently to make the annual count of the homeless. Last year’s count found 6,685 people, including single adults, parents and children.
Eliza’s teachers want her and her sixth-grade classmates who live in relative ease and privilege not only to know about the homeless but also to do something about it.
“It’s like the quote from the Bible, ‘To whom much is given, much is required,’ ” said Michael Gueltig, one of the sixth-grade teachers leading a year-long service project to benefit the homeless. “Our students tend to come from wealthier families. Many of our students aren’t aware of the homelessness in the city. Our job as teachers is to make them aware.”
So students gathered 2,000 hats, scarves, gloves and socks in the fall during a warm clothing “Socktober” drive. Then 80 sixth-graders, including Eliza, ventured into downtown Washington — where chronically homeless people often line the park benches or keep warm atop Metro grates — and began handing out clothing to people they’d never seen before or thought much about.
“I was surprised to see so many homeless people. You don’t see them where I live,” she said. “And I was really surprised that a lot of homeless people are actually really nice.”
The Deal sixth-graders are in the middle of a Teens for Jeans drive scheduled to end Feb. 13. Then students will begin to collect toiletries, and 40 more sixth-graders will hand then out to homeless people in June.
The idea, said Michael Martini, another teacher organizing the project, is for students to make personal connections and to find common humanity. Teachers have been infusing lessons about homelessness into the curriculum, in math problems and in readings of poetry written by homeless people.
“We’re trying to break the fear factor,” Martini said.
Gueltig added: “Because we’re trying to help them think — when they go to college, when they go out in the world and start making their own money — are they going to keep trying to make this a better society for everyone?”
One day recently, two people who’d experienced homelessness — speakers from the Faces of Homeless project of the national Coalition for the Homeless — came to talk to Deal’s entire sixth grade. They were there to dispel stereotypes, help students understand the root causes of homelessness and to show that homelessness could happen to just about anyone.
Steve Thomas, dressed in bright red, said he was homeless, was living in a shelter and had been homeless for much of his adult life because of his addiction to drugs and alcohol.
“How many of you have had a taste of liquor or wine?”
A forest of 11-year-old hands shot up throughout the auditorium.
“How many liked it?”
And a host of hands stayed up as teachers’ eyes widened.
“I became homeless because of alcoholism. I got my first taste in fifth grade,” Thomas said. “My grandmother used to put a tablespoon of whiskey into my milk as a baby to get me to go to sleep.”
T. Sanders said she grew up homeless. Home was a car parked at various rest stops. Her only respite, she said, was school and reading, which helped her see that the world was larger than what she could see through the back window.
She dropped out of school, had a child, then finally went to college, she said. She got a graduate degree. She started her own business. Then, in the recession, she lost everything and found herself living in her car or sleeping on a friend’s couch or in a shelter. Now, she lives and works at a group home in Maryland.
“This is such a divided city. Be grateful for the warm houses and the beds that you’ll all return to tonight,” she told the children. “Because a lot of people in your city don’t have that.”
Xzavier Long, like Eliza, is 11. But Long lives in Southeast Washington and travels by bus and Metrorail across town to Deal. He sees plenty of homeless people, he said. But until the homeless project this year — and the counseling he and others his age received from a formerly homeless man about the power of a smile or a simple nod — he wasn’t sure what to think about them or what to do.
“I remember there was a homeless guy, he said he was always going to remember me,” Xzavier said. “And all I did was say, ‘Hello.’”