It didn’t matter that Noreen Beatley didn’t know any of the homeless children. When she learned that they needed to cross two busy roads and then take multiple forms of public transportation to get to and from school, she offered to serve as a volunteer carpooler.
Another wished she were rich so she could do more, but in the absence of those funds, asked how she could help.
Each of those generous gestures came after I wrote a column nearly three months ago about how an organization that normally has nothing to do with transportation issues discovered a critical and consequential transportation need in the nation’s capital.
The staff of the Homeless Children’s Playtime Project — an organization that creates play spaces for kids who spend their nights in shelters and hotel rooms — learned through focus groups and a survey that the homeless families the city was housing in two hotels on New York Avenue weren’t just struggling to find permanent homes.
They also were struggling to get their children from those hotels, which aren’t near a Metro station, to school each day.
Mothers and fathers described spending hundreds of dollars on Uber rides each month, traveling for more than an hour each way on buses and Metro lines and, despite their best efforts, watching their children arrive late to class or miss entire days.
They also expressed safety concerns. One mother I later interviewed recalled seeing three children, all younger than 7, walking across those busy streets alone.
“Can’t we just collectively, as a city, help them get to school?” Jamila Larson, the executive director of the Playtime Project, asked at the time. “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?”
Those were all good questions, and the answers seemed obvious. Yes. Yes. And yes. That seemed the least we could do for homeless children who were placed in those hotels by a city that has seen low-income residents pushed out of neighborhoods at some of the highest rates in the country.
But until this week, the only responses the Playtime Project had received were from members of the public — and while that kindness was appreciated, it wouldn’t be enough to address the issue.
Now, in a move that could significantly ease the commutes of those families, the city is stepping forward with a solution.
Larson had recommended that the city offer a shuttle service from the hotels to the closest Metro stops, and city officials confirmed this week that they plan to do so through a pilot program. The program calls for offering shuttle service from the hotels to the two closest Metro stops twice a day. The city hopes to launch it after the winter break.
“We will be able to save a considerable amount of time each way for the children and their families,” said Noah Abraham, a deputy administrator with D.C.’s Department of Human Services. The department has housed homeless families in the hotels for years but hopes to stop using one by the end of March.
Abraham said that the city has been working on finding a transportation solution for the families in the hotels since the beginning of the school year and that the goal of the pilot program is to gauge how many people will use the shuttle and how it will affect school attendance.
Through surveys, he said, 60 families at the Days Inn and 80 families at the Quality Inn indicated they would use the shuttle. But many of those families have multiple school-age children, which means hundreds could end up using it.
Larson called the pilot program “a really important temporary fix.”
“It’s unfortunate this essential service could not have been established when the hotels became shelters years ago,” she said, “but it will certainly make the lives of today’s students trying to get to school easier.”
More than 500 children remain at the hotels, she said.
The D.C. Education Coalition for Change, which is made up of teachers, parents, students and community members, also took up the issue. It was on their agenda at a recent town hall meeting that addressed school transportation needs across the city and was attended by D.C. officials.
Maria McLemore, a teacher at Cardozo Education Campus and a DECC organizer, described the shuttle service as “a significant win for families.”
Some of the other transportation solutions will take more time to implement, she said, but the shuttles will immediately address a critical need.
Children’s Law Center also pointed out that the city has a legal obligation to give homeless children school stability. “These parents should not have to worry about finding a safe and affordable way to get their children to school,” said the center’s executive director, Judith Sandalow.
The District provides students with Kids Ride Free cards that allow them to ride, at no charge, to and from school on buses and the Metro. The children at the hotels also can use those cards, but their commutes are made more complicated by their families’ unstable housing. Many remain enrolled in schools in their old neighborhoods.
One mother who shared her story in that earlier column described spending 1½ hours on three buses to take her sons, ages 4 and 5, to a school 3.8 miles from their hotel. A father spoke about the frustration of trying to get a toddler to day care and a 6-year-old boy to school on time, knowing he would fail and open himself up to the question, “Why is he always late?”
“It’s not for lack of trying,” he said. “It’s just the commute.”
Those are the people Beatley was thinking about when she sent me an email saying she was willing to carpool. Other people also sent emails, but hers stood out for going beyond financial donations and outrage. She was ready to show up. She was ready to do something.
At the time, I connected her to the Playtime Project, and she learned that a carpool couldn’t be organized. But recently, I reached back out to her. I wanted to know what makes a person willing to give up her mornings to drive strangers.
Her answer captured, in the most concise way, why the city’s decision to launch this shuttle service matters.
“You do it,” she said, “just because it’s the right thing to do.”
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