The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Homeless children in hotels are struggling to get to school, a group learned. It now wants D.C. officials to consider: If tourists get shuttles, shouldn’t they?

Christina Gaddis used to walk her sons to school. Now that they are living in a hotel, she has to cross two busy roads and take three buses to get her sons Emanuel, 5, and Kenneth, 4, to school.
Christina Gaddis used to walk her sons to school. Now that they are living in a hotel, she has to cross two busy roads and take three buses to get her sons Emanuel, 5, and Kenneth, 4, to school. (Christina Gaddis)
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Before a month’s worth of rain fell in the nation’s capital in a single hour, flooding her apartment and destroying most of her family’s belongings, Christina Gaddis had a home that offered a washer and dryer and one other important comfort: She could walk her two young sons to their elementary school.

Now, she and her children live in a hotel on New York Avenue that houses other homeless families, and she is dreading the commute that starts Monday, the first day of school.

To get to Smothers Elementary School in Northeast Washington, she and her sons, 4-year-old Kenneth and 5-year-old Emanuel, will have to cross two busy roads and take three buses. They will do that again, in reverse, to get home. The 3.8-mile trip, she says, will take an hour and a half each way, assuming traffic is normal.

“It’s very, very daunting,” Gaddis, 31, told me as she made her way from the bus stop this week. She reminded her sons to “stay on the inside” of the sidewalk.

“It stresses the parents out,” she said. “All of us.”

The staff of the Homeless Children’s Playtime Project, which serves children housed by the city at the Quality Inn and the Days Inn on New York Avenue, recently held focus groups and conducted a survey of parents at the hotels. They found two primary concerns. The obvious one: housing. The less obvious one: transportation.

Mothers and fathers spoke about their struggles to get their children to and from school and how that has resulted in tardiness and truancy.

One mother confessed to spending about $400 a month on Uber to get her daughter to school and herself to work.

An unemployed father described how his 8-year-old son had missed school the previous year because of the area’s lack of Metro access and how he was nervous that the same pattern would emerge this year.

“How can we expect them to do well in school if they can’t get to school?” Jamila Larson, the executive director of the Playtime Project, said of the children at the hotels. At last count, 270 homeless families with 532 children were housed there.

Larson, a former school social worker, said that transportation is not part of the nonprofit group’s mission but that this issue is too important for agencies and organizations to “stay in their lane.”

“Can’t we just collectively, as a city, help them get to school?” she said. “So much of what they face every day is hard. Can’t we just make this one piece easier? Can’t we just set them up for success?”

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She pitched a potential solution to city officials in letters she sent this month, outlining the “dire need.”

“The solution we recommend is providing a shuttle bus service from the shelter hotels to the nearest Metro station, just like these hotels did for tourists (Maybe even dispatch a circulator bus down there during the schoolyear?),” reads the letter she sent to several council members.

In the letter, she cited a law intended to remove transportation barriers for homeless children and indicated that she had alerted the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Education, the D.C. Department of Human Services and the Office of the State Superintendent of Education about the issue.

“Transportation is a basic amenity,” Larson told me when we spoke this week. “If we understand that tourists need to get to the monuments and business executives need to get to conferences, why don’t we understand kids need to get to school?”

In a city that fought over whether the D.C. Circulator should offer free rides indefinitely, a shuttle service to get homeless children to and from school seems like a reasonable request.

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It also seems to fall in line with previous statements made by top city officials about the importance of access to public transportation.

“No child should miss a minute or a day of school because of transportation challenges, and no family should be in a position where money is a barrier to getting their children to school on time,” Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) said in a recent statement about the Kids Ride Free cards that allow D.C. students to ride public transportation free to and from school.

As city officials consider Larson’s suggestion and where they want to stand on this issue, they should know that the families at the hotels are watching, waiting and hoping for help.

I spoke to three families, and all of them said that a shuttle to the Metro would greatly improve their commutes. The nearest Metro stop is 1.7 miles away, and the closest bus stop requires crossing traffic-heavy New York Avenue and Bladensburg Road.

“Sometimes I see kids taking kids to school, and it’s really scary,” said Erica Cubbage-Person, 39. She recalled seeing a girl leading her two younger siblings across the middle of the road. “They had to be under 7. All three of them.”

Her husband is an Army veteran, and she said the family ended up at the Days Inn in April after one of their sons was a victim of a crime and they had to move for safety concerns. Since arriving, Cubbage-Person has changed her children’s doctors so they won’t have to travel far, and she has enrolled her youngest son, who is 12, in a new school to shorten his commute. Even then, he will have to take several buses to get there.

She said she hopes to buy him a bicycle to further reduce his trip.

“I would do anything for my kids,” she said, “and I’m sure there are a lot of other mothers here who would do the same.”

Fathers, too.

Carlo Blount describes his 6-year-old son, Kyrie, as “a shining star.” He said the boy excels in school and won a spelling bee last year. He added that he has arrived late to school many days because of public transportation.

“It’s frustrating because if you’re tardy, it opens it up to people just questioning, ‘Why is he always late?’ ” said Blount, 39. “It’s not for lack of trying. It’s just the commute.”

The family also has a 4-month-old and a 2-year-old. Blount said the toddler missed so many days of day care last year that she lost her place there.

Families at the hotels need help with transportation, he said, and the city should find a way to provide it because “it’s the human thing to do.”

When the water began rising on July 8 in Gaddis’s apartment, she grabbed everything that held sentimental value. Almost everything else was destroyed, including her children’s coats and all but one pair of her shoes.

She still gets choked up when she thinks about what was lost.

Gaddis said she wants for her children what other parents do. She wants them to have a home and feel safe walking in their neighborhood. She wants them to go to college and find success. And she wants to eventually give them that without the city’s help. She is studying information technology and cybersecurity at Strayer University. She said she saw a job in that field advertise a $90,000 yearly salary and set that as her goal.

“We’re not uneducated, and we’re not lazy,” she said. “We just need a little help because of our situation right now.”

And she could really use that help starting Monday, when she will drop off two little boys for their first day of kindergarten and first grade.

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