When Norris and Dontieia Green and their children were temporarily evicted from the Spring Road Shelter for homeless families in Northwest last fall, they lost more than lodging.
Their possessions -- tools the father used for work, pots and pans the mother used for cooking, and school uniforms their two girls and a boy wore to class -- were gone when they returned to the apartment building after four days of doubling up with relatives.
It was a major disruption for the Green family in many ways. Not the least of their troubles was the two weeks of school the children missed because their uniforms disappeared when the family's possessions were dumped on the sidewalk. The Greens, who are now moving to another apartment in the shelter, argue that they were wrongly evicted, and the matter is being considered by the city's Office of Administrative Hearings.
It didn't have to be that way. A federal program provides funding to support the educational needs of homeless children, including the purchase of school uniforms. But among all the state educational agencies in the country, the District's is the only one that rejects the federal money. (The District is considered a state for certain federal purposes.)
The public schools haven't taken the money, which is more than $250,000 for the coming school year, since 1995. That's when the city opted out of the program after losing a lawsuit that charged that the District and the school system did not "ensure access to free, appropriate public education for homeless children." The suit was filed on behalf of 10 homeless families with children.
During the past 10 years, the city has not claimed nearly $1.6 million in money available through the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, according to U.S. Department of Education figures.
The city and the school district pulled out of the program after a federal court ruled, on March 7, 1995, that local officials had violated the law by "failing to address educational needs of children in a timely fashion."
Rather than obey the court order, which called on the city to provide bus tokens for all homeless children -- and their parental escorts -- who travel more than 11/2 miles to school, city and school board officials simply decided to withdraw from the federally funded program. City officials at the time argued that the cost of supplying bus tokens would exceed the amount of the federal grant. Advocates for the homeless called the city's estimates "preposterous."
Thirty-one days after the court's ruling, the D.C. Council passed, and then-mayor Marion Barry signed, emergency legislation that allowed the city to reject federal funding. That done, the city and its public schools managed to outwit a court order and escape federal requirements to provide services to homeless children.
"Given the District's withdrawal from the program, there is now no law to apply," U.S. District Judge Royce C. Lamberth wrote on May 4, 1995. "Defendants have succeeded in circumventing the requirements of the McKinney Act, thereby denying District citizens the federal assistance that would otherwise have been available."
The school system's decision not to participate in the program is under review. Beverly Wallace, director of transitory services for D.C. public schools, said the current superintendent, Clifford B. Janey, "has not made a decision as of yet" on whether to accept the money.
Even if he does take the $250,000 now available, the amount rejected from previous years -- which totals about $1.35 million -- is lost to the District forever. "The money has been redistributed to the other states," said Jackie Jackson, the U.S. Department of Education's director of student achievement and school accountability programs, which includes education projects for homeless children.
Wallace said that complying with the court order and various federal regulations would still require the District to spend more money than it would get from the Education Department.
Wallace said her office has only two staff positions, and one of those is vacant, so she does not have the personnel to determine whether each family claiming to be homeless to secure the services really is. If her office took the federal money, most of it would go to workers' salaries, she said.
The budget for Wallace's office is $300,000, so the federal funding would almost double her financial resources.
Her explanation about added costs is one that federal officials and some members of the D.C. Council find hard to understand and homeless advocates don't believe. Arlene Ackerman, the former D.C. school superintendent, used the extra-cost argument in a March 1999 letter to D.C. Council member Phil Mendelson (D-At Large). A month later, he wrote to the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless and said, "I do not understand her reference to the injunction imposing 'an additional fiscal responsibility' " on the schools.
The school system's explanation about rejecting the funding also leaves the Education Department perplexed. "We're not clear about why they did not take the money," Jackson said.
The schools do provide a variety of services to homeless children, but not all that could be available with the federal funding.
"We have never used federal money to provide uniforms for children," said Wallace. If they did, the Green children might not have missed so much class, said the family's lawyer, Amber Harding, who is with the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless.
Studies indicate that missing school, and what experts more generally call "academic instability," are particularly serious problems for homeless children. Before the lawsuit was filed, the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty surveyed 21 homeless families in D.C. shelters and found that in a quarter of the families, children missed school "a lot" because they could not afford transportation.
In addition to providing transportation and uniforms, the federal funding can be used for immunizations, tutoring, supplies and other things that facilitate and enhance the education of homeless students.
Jackson, of the Education Department, sent Janey a letter in April, urging him take the money and "to join all other" state educational agencies "by applying for a grant in the next fiscal cycle." She enclosed an application and told him it must be submitted by Aug. 29.