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Young and Homeless in Rural America

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One evening in June, Scott Cooper, a high school football coach in rural southern Ohio, received a text from Blake, one of his linebackers. Blake, who was 17, would miss practice the next day, and so would his brother Lee Jr., who was 15. Another text followed with an explanation: Their family had to move, and right away. They didn’t know where, but it would probably mean leaving River Valley High School.

In Cooper’s view, the brothers, each soft-spoken, each over six feet tall, had real promise. They’re “good kids,” he said, “very respectful, and their upside as players is very high.” They would show up on weekends to help make goody bags for team fund-raisers or sandwiches for a charity event. Sometimes they would stay after scrimmages with their mom, dad, little sister and two younger brothers, helping Cooper’s wife hand out hot dogs from a flowered crock pot until the sky streaked pink and the stadium lights popped on.

The family, including an older brother who had graduated from high school, had left their last home suddenly as well, just 18 months earlier. Before moving to Gallia County, they lived in Portsmouth, about an hour’s drive west, where the boys’ father, Lee, worked in landscaping and their mother, LeAnn, collected workers’ compensation after injuring her back as a home health aide. With a population of about 20,000, Portsmouth was hit particularly hard by the opioid epidemic and its fallout. The family rented a government-subsidized house between an abandoned building and a house where drug deals took place at all hours, LeAnn said. The neighbors rummaged through their trash and dumped needles and buckets of human waste in their yard. The sexual trafficking of children for drugs had become a significant local problem. Fearing for their safety, the family fled in December 2020. (I have used middle names or initials to protect the privacy of the families I met.)

Once they left subsidized housing, the family, like an increasing number of Americans, struggled to find a place that they could afford. They crowded in with LeAnn’s mother, then her sister, and as they searched, the children tried to keep up with their studies at their old schools. They had switched to remote learning during the pandemic, but rural internet access is spotty, and they often couldn’t log on. After three months, the family gave up on finding a place of their own and reluctantly moved to Gallia County, to live with Lee’s dad. Lee had a very troubled relationship with his father, and the family was not optimistic about the move. “It was a last resort,” LeAnn said grimly.

For a while, the arrangement worked better than expected. The kids enrolled in new schools, with Blake and Lee Jr. landing at River Valley High. They got good grades, and Blake wowed everyone with his beautiful tenor voice in show choir. In the spring, he started dating a girl he met in rehearsals for a school production of “Bye Bye Birdie.” Over time, LeAnn said, they “got back into who they used to be.”

But the situation with Lee’s father became volatile. The night Blake texted Cooper, his grandfather had thrown the family out. They had nowhere to go. Cooper wanted to help but didn’t know where to start. He asked the principal what to do, and he said: Ask Sandy. She’ll know.

Sandra Plantz, an administrator at Gallia County Local Schools for more than 20 years, oversees areas as diverse as Title I reading remediation and federal grants for all seven of the district’s schools, including River Valley High. In recent years, though, she has leaned in hard on a role that is overlooked in many districts: homeless liaison. Her district serves just under 3,000 students but covers some 450 square miles of an area that doesn’t offer much in the way of a safety net beyond the local churches. The county has no family homeless shelters, and those with no place to go sometimes end up sleeping in the parking lot of the Walmart or at the hospital emergency room. As homelessness increased in the county in recent years, Sandra and her husband, Kevin, a juvenile probation officer, found themselves at the center of an informal advocacy team.

In 2018, Kevin and a few other local law-enforcement agents started a group they called Code 10 Ministries to raise money to pay for motel stays for families in immediate need of shelter. When Cooper reached out to Sandra, she asked Kevin to have Code 10 pay for two rooms for two nights for Blake’s family at the Travelodge, a grim hotel across from the county fairgrounds.

Sandra then introduced the family to the process of applying for HUD housing. Subsidized housing from HUD is effectively a lottery; nationally there are only 36 units available for every 100 families who qualify, and the requirements can be hard to navigate. Plantz told them that purchasing their own motel room could set back the clock on when they could qualify as “HUD homeless” — vulnerable enough for long enough to be eligible for housing assistance. She found a woman from her church who would pay for a few more nights instead.

Lee Jr. at River Valley High School in southern Ohio.Credit…Danna Singer for The New York Times

No one could afford to keep paying for the motel rooms, but neither did anyone want to see the family move to a tent in a park, which was an option they had been weighing. Cooper’s wife wanted to let the littlest children sleep at their house, but Plantz advised that this, too, could compromise their status as officially homeless. Cooper had an old camper he was fixing up for the county fair in August — just to get out of the sun on long days — and he offered it to the family. It had no water, working bathroom or propane tank for the stove. The oldest boys had to duck their heads every time they stood up, and they all slept on the floor or in the family’s minivan. June became July, then August, and no better housing option emerged. When the new school year began, Blake and Lee Jr. headed back to River Valley High — and a few weeks later, the family finally moved into HUD housing.

Families like Blake’s don’t fit easily into the “homeless industrial complex,” as some advocates for homeless youth and families have taken to calling the funding mechanisms, rules and priorities that determine the fates of millions of Americans who struggle with housing insecurity every year. The system is focused largely on adults experiencing homelessness in cities, and it is not well equipped to address the types of homelessness experienced by children and families, especially in rural areas. The limited data that exists suggests that rural students face homelessness in roughly the same proportion as their urban counterparts — and with far less in the way of a support system. In this vacuum of resources, schools sometimes offer the only form of help available to homeless families.

Over the course of reporting in rural Ohio, I spoke with school officials, homeless advocates, students and their families. I met young people living in trailers that stank of sewage, mothers sexually harassed by predatory landlords, families who could not take their children to the doctor because they could not afford gas for the long trip. For all of them, the stakes of precarious housing were high. Homeless students have the worst educational outcomes of any group, the lowest attendance, the lowest scores on standardized tests, the lowest graduation rates. They all face the same cruel paradox: Students who do not have a stable place to live are unable to attend school regularly, and failing to graduate from high school is the single greatest risk factor for future homelessness.

Sandra Plantz, homeless liaison for Gallia County Local Schools.Credit…Danna Singer for The New York Times

Plantz became the district’s homeless liaison in 2013. Congress mandated the role under the McKinney-Vento Act of 1987, which requires public schools to ensure that children without homes have “equal access to the same free, appropriate public education” as children with homes. For Plantz, it was supposed to be a temporary job, and, her plate already full, she didn’t want the extra work. Still, she said, “someone gives me a job, I’m going to do it.”

Plantz said that when she started, she was told there were three or four homeless students in the district, but she also quickly saw there were no procedures in place to identify students experiencing homelessness. She started educating herself about McKinney-Vento. She attended webinars and conferences about best practices in other districts. She wrote her own intake form for enrollment that asked families questions about their housing without using the word “homeless.” She printed a brochure, adorned with a clip-art globe, outlining the federal law and listing local resources. She trained school district employees to look for signs of homelessness: Bus drivers tell her if students no longer live at the house where they’re picked up or if conditions deteriorate; the nurse tells her if she can’t send a sick student home for the day because there is nowhere to go. Once she put just a few procedures in place, “the numbers started skyrocketing,” she recalled. Her second year on the job, 40 homeless students were identified, the next year it doubled to 80, and the number has held between 150 and 200 since then — roughly 6 percent of Gallia’s total student population, more than twice the national average.

Every school in Plantz’s district has boxes of supplies — children’s underwear, toiletries, prom dresses — and she is always looking for ways to destigmatize the process of getting those items to the students who need them. At River Valley High, they are stored in the Raider Room (named for the school’s mascot), which also has a shower. She brings kids in and out to do various school-related chores so that visiting the room is not seen as a sign of poverty. When one of her students, a cheerleader, stopped coming to school because her unstable housing situation made it impossible to do her hair in the morning, Plantz bought her a $14 hair straightener from Walgreens and put it in the Raider Room. “Get off the bus, go straight to the shower and do your hair there,” she said. Last December, after a mother showed up at a district office saying her boyfriend had set fire to everything she owned, including the papers she would need to register her three children, Plantz went into her office, got her purse and took the mother to Walmart: She bought two outfits and a coat for each child so they could come to school the next day. She signed up one of the children for counseling and left the mom with some gas cards and a list of possible apartment rentals.

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The McKinney-Vento law supports small annual grants to help with these kinds of efforts, but most districts don’t receive them; the application process can be cumbersome. In addition to requiring school districts to appoint a liaison, the law is supposed to eliminate barriers to education by waiving address requirements for enrollment or allowing students to remain in their school of origin if their family is forced to relocate. But those provisions have not been widely understood or evenly enforced.

There is very little data tracking homelessness in rural areas around the country, and it is the McKinney-​Vento liaisons who most often, if sometimes imperfectly, fill the gap. In 2018, Montana, for example, experienced a 145 percent increase in the number of homeless students not because many more kids suddenly became homeless but because a new statewide McKinney-Vento coordinator upped her efforts. The district right next to Plantz’s, which is demographically similar, still reports fewer than 10 homeless students a year. And Ohio as a whole reported that 1.8 percent of its students experienced homelessness in the 2019-20 school year, a number that Valerie Kunze, assistant director of vulnerable youth programs for the Ohio Department of Education, acknowledges is an undercount. “You have places reporting 0 percent, and there’s just no 0 percent,” she told me.

But even with its many flaws and inconsistencies, the reporting by McKinney-Vento liaisons, aggregated by the Department of Education, represents a crucial and rare effort to quantify the problem of student homelessness, especially in rural areas. The D.O.E. definition of homelessness is broader than the one used by, for instance, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and better able to capture what homelessness usually looks like for rural youth and families — Blake’s family living in a cramped camper on a hill or families doubled up sometimes in unsafe situations hidden from sight — as opposed to living on a street or in a shelter. In 2019, the last year of reporting before the pandemic, HUD’s annual “point in time” count on a single night found 53,692 parents and children experiencing homelessness. Over the course of the same school year, the D.O.E., using data from McKinney-Vento liaisons, counted 1.4 million school-age children as homeless.

When schools shut down during Covid, so did the primary way of identifying and assisting children experiencing homelessness. A national survey of McKinney-Vento liaisons conducted by School House Connection and the University of Michigan in 2020 estimated that roughly 420,000 homeless students had simply disappeared from the rolls, untracked and unassisted.

That number was part of the reason Congress allocated $800 million in assistance for homeless students as part of the American Recovery Plan Act, an unprecedented amount. For the first time, many school districts that never received McKinney-Vento grants found themselves with a sudden, if temporary, infusion of resources and a wider mandate for how to use them. Some schools have bought blocks of motel rooms, and others have hired consultants to help families navigate the housing system. When the first of the two promised rounds of ARPA funding made its way to Plantz’s district in the spring, she considered various projects with an eye to something that would still be around when the funding ran out, deciding on new supply shelving for clothes and toiletries and washing machines that she could put in a discreet location. “Kids have used the ones in the field house, but they have to ask permission, and it’s very conspicuous,” she said.

Lisa Brooks, director of youth initiatives at the Coalition on Homelessness and Housing in Ohio, also had the long term in mind. With her organization’s ARPA money, she began a program to train school staffs directly on how to support students experiencing homelessness. For her, the opportunity to expand capacity on that scale was thrilling, but she worried what would happen when the money ran out. ‘’This was a response to one crisis — the pandemic — but the national crisis of homeless students is ongoing,” Brooks said. “The Sandra model is not sustainable. It can’t be that there’s just one champion in the district.”

Clean clothes and supplies for students who need them at River Valley High.Credit…Danna Singer for The New York Times

In rural areas, schools can be an island of resources. Trimble Elementary school in Athens County, about 50 miles north of River Valley High School, regularly brings in a van for dental and vision care and a therapist who accepts Medicaid. It is also home to a sheriff’s office, an urgent-care facility and a branch of the Athens County Children Services, headed by Becky Handa. She is able to offer a lot to families in the school — her office is crammed with food and supplies — but one problem has been especially frustrating. The sparse, often substandard housing in the county is falling apart, leaving families with few safe or affordable places to stay.

Handa told me about two families who shared an apartment near the school. Norma and her daughter had doubled up with her friend Yvonne and her three children. In March, Handa said, she had stopped by their apartment to drop off a box of food. She hadn’t seen the inside of the place since the beginning of the pandemic, and she was shocked at how badly it had deteriorated. A long-unrepaired leak was causing mold to bloom everywhere. The floor had softened and was popping up, exposing raw sewage in the basement. At one point, Yvonne’s son Wade, 9, fell through the floor up to his hips and had to be pulled out by his mother and his older brother, Robert, who was 12. (I am using middle names for both families.) The families were always sick, taking antibiotics and steroids to suppress coughs that would not go away. Yvonne told Handa that she wanted to take action. Handa called the Health Department, hoping it would force the landlord to make repairs; instead it deemed the apartment uninhabitable and sealed the doors with plastic ties. “It happened a little too fast,” Handa said uneasily.

The families had nowhere to go. Yvonne asked the Salvation Army to pay for a room at the closest hotel, which was 20 miles away. Handa gave them some gas cards to help with transportation. As the families tried in vain to find an affordable apartment, they bounced from one motel to the next, looking for a place that was cheap and at least somewhat safe. They eventually landed at the Relax Inn at a strip mall in Lancaster, a small city an hour’s drive from school. They had crossed county lines, which meant they had to start over with new caseworkers to apply for housing support. The children didn’t go to school for two weeks, until the day manager told the family they could use the motel as their home address for registration purposes in their new district. Once enrolled, the older children couldn’t do homework because they had trouble connecting their Chromebooks to the internet.

One April evening, I met the families outside their room, and we went to a nearby Taco Bell to talk. Playing with the straw on her soda cup, Norma’s 12-year-old daughter, Christine, with freckles and torn skinny jeans, told me, “I’m behind like 21 math assignments.”

Christine was not happy to be at the Relax Inn. “I never moved schools before, and I hate it. People think I’m weird because I’m a country girl.”

After the rural Ohio apartment where Re’nae and Wade lived was condemned, their family bounced from motel to motel while looking for suitable housing.Credit…Danna Singer for The New York Times

“She had an appendix attack because she was crying so hard about being here,” Wade offered.

“You mean anxiety attack,” Christine said.

The hotel room cost $360 a week, more than double the families’ old rent, and brought many added costs: a storage unit, gas to drive to a laundromat, quarters to feed the machine, fast-food meals out. The mothers had started hand-washing clothes in the bathtub using laundry pods that they cut open, drying one item at a time in front of a space heater.

When the dining room of the Taco Bell closed, we went back to the hotel. It was getting late. The families got into the two beds, preparing to go to sleep, women and girls lying lengthwise, boys across the bottom of the bed at their feet. Robert, his skinny chest bare under a blanket, asked Norma for melatonin to fall asleep so he wouldn’t be tired at school again. He had trouble sleeping at the Relax Inn, because, he said, “this doesn’t feel like a home.”

He told Norma, “My teacher says if I fall asleep in math again, I’m going to get kicked out.”

“You’re not going to go to school tomorrow,” she replied softly.

“Why?” Robert asked.

“You don’t have clothes for school,” Norma said.

There was a pause. Robert lay down, still wearing his glasses.

When I returned late the next morning, Robert was still asleep. But Wade was up; he had showered, parted his hair smartly and dressed himself in unwashed shorts with adult socks pulled up to his thighs for warmth and climbed up to the top bathroom shelf in search of a can of Chef Boyardee that he didn’t find. The family had no money and almost no food left. They had food stamps but no gas to drive to stores that take them.

Blond with bright blue eyes, Wade has a face that broadcasts every emotion. Since he had found himself marooned at the Relax Inn, he spent a lot of time doing what he called “exploring”: wandering around the strip-mall shops with the older kids, organizing carts, picking up trash. A few weeks before, after watching cars go through the Moo Moo carwash, he hatched an idea of washing cars in the motel’s parking lot, which ended up earning him $35. Wade especially loved visiting PetSmart, where he had learned that if he gently tapped his small pointer finger against the breast of a cockatiel, the bird would climb right on. Each time the bird perched its bright compact body on Wade’s finger, crest bobbing, Wade would look at it and beam.

But the kids were no longer allowed at PetSmart; recently, Robert had accidentally let a bird loose, and the manager said no one under 15 could come into the store.

“Mom, what are we going to do today?” Wade asked.

Yvonne didn’t answer.

“Mom, I just need to know: Are we doing anything today?”

“No, we don’t have to do something every day,” she said.

“Mom, I’m hungry,” Wade said.

She told him to get the Jimmy Dean breakfast sandwich in the fridge next to the TV.

“It has to be cooked on a stove,” he told her, and then asked again: “Are we going to do anything today? Are we going to leave the room?”

Wade became increasingly frustrated and eventually shut himself in the bathroom to cry, seated on the toilet, hands clamped to his sides.

Yvonne went in and knelt down beside him, speaking gently. “I’ve got no gas, buttercup, none.”

Around 1, another mother knocked on the door. She was staying two rooms down with her baby and toddler and all their possessions — crock pot under the bed, bath toys by the door. She had been offered a chance to pick up a shift at the gas station — could Yvonne and Norma watch her two kids? Norma and Yvonne said yes, and for the rest of the day there were six children in the room.

In June, Becky Handa finally got a lead on an affordable duplex, and the two families were able to move back to their district. The school year was over, though. Handa was frustrated. The lack of decent housing in the children’s district had disrupted their education. “Now they are going to be trying to catch up on everything they missed,” she said.

Wade with Re’nae, center, and Christine in their new duplex.Credit…Danna Singer for The New York Times

Sandra Plantz’s husband, Kevin, seems to know everyone in town. He previously worked as a State Farm insurance agency branch manager, and he was now a volunteer firefighter and a youth pastor. Gregarious, with wraparound sunglasses and beefy forearms, he told me he brought a “servant’s heart” to his work in juvenile probation.

His job frequently brings him into contact with students who have not been identified as experiencing homelessness but in fact are. Chronic absence is often a proxy for youth homelessness and housing instability, but it is also a crime in many states. In 2019, roughly 60,000 children were referred to juvenile court for truancy, and about 500 were removed from their homes because of truancy charges. Depending on local laws, parents can also face jail time and fines when their children are truant. These punishments make little sense to Kevin. “If a kid is truant from school, there’s usually a reason for that, and in my experience, it’s either drug abuse, domestic violence or homelessness,” he said. “Why is that a juvenile-​delinquency issue?”

In April, Kevin introduced me to a 17-year-old student who had experienced homelessness most of his life. Everett (his middle name) was on probation for missing more than 70 days of that school year. Shy and earnest, he kept his gaze down, curly hair falling over his face, as he described his situation. His parents have developmental disabilities — he helps them with reading and counting money — and his two older brothers have autism. They had lived in a string of substandard trailers and houses on both sides of the Ohio River, sometimes shared with another family. The only school-based interventions Everett could recall receiving were punitive. The last time he regularly attended school was before Covid, when he was living across the border in West Virginia, and he started getting in trouble and was suspended twice. “They gave me the option to go to an alternative school for bad kids out back of the real school, or they would expel me,” he said. (Mandatory “alternative schools” for students facing expulsion for behavior issues or truancy have been part of the American educational system for many years.)

Many advocates think criminalizing or otherwise punishing truancy only worsens the underlying issues that cause students to miss school in the first place. Jennifer Erb-Downward, a senior research associate at the University of Michigan’s Poverty Solutions, found that students experiencing homelessness in Michigan were disciplined at higher rates than students who were not. She says schools should be required to factor in a student’s housing status as they weigh disciplinary measures. “If what you’re seeing in a child is a behavior manifesting from underlying trauma being triggered, then disciplining them in the usual way — suspension and expulsion — is not going to change the behavior and will only remove the child’s ability to participate in school,” she said.

From Everett’s perspective, his suspension in ninth grade sent his life off track in a way that he has yet to remedy. The next time the family moved, they went to Columbus, two hours north. Everett’s parents said they tried to enroll him in school, but his birth certificate was too tattered to be considered valid for registration. They ordered a new one from an online vendor, Everett said, but it never came in the mail. When the family drove to Massachusetts, the state Everett was born in, for a funeral, they said they tried to go to a government office to get the birth certificate, but it was closed because of Covid. Everett didn’t go to school for the year the family lived in Columbus.

Last year the family returned to Gallipolis, where Everett had once attended school, moving into a dilapidated blue trailer with no running water and unreliable electricity. Depressed and unmoored from his year in Columbus, and with no way to shower regularly, Everett could not bring himself to go back to school. A few months into the school year, Everett said he received a warning from the school that he could be taken away from his parents if he did not start attending school. In March 2022, he was arraigned on charges of truancy. To comply with the court order, Everett started attending Gallia Academy at the end of the 2021-22 school year, keeping his head down, talking to no one.

The Health Department deemed the blue trailer unsafe around the same time acquaintances of the family invited them to move in and help pay bills. “We knew it was not the best option, they were not the best people, but we had no other options, we had to leave right away,” Everett said. Tensions quickly ran high. When I met Everett outside the other family’s house last spring, he told me we’d have to speak in the street. “It’s not a good situation in there,” he said.

One day soon after, he did not go to school because he sensed that a fight would break out in his family’s tenuous living situation. Things reached a breaking point that day, and Everett’s family moved back to the block where their trailer was previously declared unsafe. The boys slept in a friend’s trailer next door, while the parents slept in a tent. Spring storms flooded it, soaking their mattresses.

After Everett’s court appearance, his family was finally placed in HUD housing in another county. He struggled to complete ninth grade in summer school in Gallia County, even as his friends from West Virginia moved on — one got a job at a dynamite factory. He was praying when the new school year started that he wouldn’t still be in ninth grade at 18. “Tenth would be bearable,” he told me.

When August came, Everett did in fact get to start 10th grade; he had completed enough work in summer school. “I’ve been through a lot, and I am hoping that sooner or later something hops back on track,” he said. “It seems to be working slowly right now. At least I have a place to live.”

Everett in the neighborhood where he sought temporary shelter.Credit…Danna Singer for The New York Times

Sandra Plantz tries to make sure that Gallia County students who are struggling with housing insecurity don’t get sent to court for truancy; if she knows that a student missed school because of homelessness, the absence is excused. But getting kids to school in a sprawling district where buses travel 4,000 miles across more than 30 routes every day sometimes proved impossible.

She told me about one student, T. (his first initial), whom she had been trying to help from behind the scenes for the last two years. T. was 19 when I met him. Sporting a thin mustache and a wry smile, he had been more or less living by himself since he was 12 — a situation that the McKinney-Vento law categorizes as “unaccompanied youth.” He moved around carrying just a book bag. Sometimes he stayed at friends’ or relatives’ apartments in the area’s sole small HUD low-income housing complex, but he could not stay too long, lest the residents be found in violation of HUD’s occupancy rules, which limit the number of people who can live in an apartment. Sometimes T. walked around all night because he could not find anywhere to stay.

On his first day of school at River Valley High, he announced that he wanted to be the first person in his family — anyone, on either side — to graduate from high school. He told the principal, he told his counselor and he never wavered. And as she does with any of the students she works with, Plantz absorbed T.’s dream in all its urgency, as her own.

The central problem was how to get him on the school bus every morning. The apartment complex where T. sometimes stayed was outside the boundaries of Plantz’s district, but if he called, she could get a bus to stop nearby. Sometimes he stayed somewhere that had no cell reception — a not-uncommon occurrence in Gallia County — and he couldn’t tell her where to send the bus. When he wore out his welcome at a friend’s house, he would go to his father’s place, clear across the county and well beyond the reach of her buses. “That was a really bad situation,” Plantz said. “It could only last a week or 10 days at the most, and even then it wasn’t good or real safe for him. He would always try to stay with dad — you know how kids do, they wish or hope for the best.”

Plantz thought if she could get T. to one fixed location enough consecutive days, she could get him to school, and he could graduate. “He’s smart enough, he could take his GED and pass it if he wanted to graduate tomorrow, but we just cannot physically get him here.”

Plantz knew about a new youth shelter nearby, a plain house in a grassy field. In 2017, Brooks recruited her to join a statewide team focused on addressing youth homelessness as part of HUD’s Youth Homelessness Demonstration Program. Part of the program involved building new shelters, and now, for the first time, the region had crisis beds for homeless youth who were on their own — two dozen of them, across five counties. But the nearest shelter was not in Plantz’s school district, so she couldn’t send the school bus. Plantz called a man who ran a car service out of his home. If Plantz could get a contract through the school district, would he commit to transporting T. from the shelter to River Valley High every day? He would. A few more calls, and the district agreed to a contract.

But when Plantz reached out to the new youth shelter, she was told it was at capacity with a waiting list. Plantz pressed on. She next turned to a local church that she heard had informally begun housing a handful of men recovering from drug addiction. She called the pastor. Could he let T. stay at one of the houses although he didn’t fit the profile? The pastor checked with his board, and the answer was yes.

Plantz patched together this arrangement for a few days. But ultimately T. balked at the idea of staying at one of the church’s houses. He was afraid, he told me later, of “drug addicts and random people.” He was also worried about “being by myself with no friends.” The church’s house was far from the housing complex where he had the most connections, far from school, and there was a curfew.

Plantz was disappointed but undeterred. T.’s counselor at River Valley came up with another idea. She had heard that the local career tech school was offering a 12-week adult-​education course in masonry, and that a friend of T.’s happened to drive by that way frequently already. Maybe they could persuade the adult-ed school to take T. and give the friend a gas card to bring him there?

Plantz wasn’t giving up on the high school diploma, but she was aware that in a few short months, when school ended, so would T.’s main access to any kind of help. She told me at the time, “If he did nothing else, he can make enough money laying bricks to get out of his homeless situation.”

Toward the end of April, Plantz asked T.’s counselor about whether he would graduate. She flushed red, looking crushed. “Oh, I thought you knew, Sandy,” she said. “He’s not going to do it. He was trying to take credit recovery online after masonry school, but it was just too much.” She trailed off.

In July, I spoke to T., each of us seated on plastic chairs in the hot sun outside the apartment where he had been staying; he was locked out until the people who lived there came home. He told me that he hadn’t been able to get a high school diploma, but he planned to pursue one as an adult. T. had been guarded in our conversations. But when I told him that Plantz said he had tried really hard to graduate, he straightened up.

“Yes, I did. They see it, they know that when I was 15 years old I didn’t have nobody in my corner to push me to go to school,” he said. “And when I hit 18, everyone thought I would have dropped out because legally I could and no one would have said anything, but I still kept going.”

Why, I asked, did he care so much about the diploma? T. looked at the sky and smiled. “Change,” he said.


This story was produced with support from the Education Writers Association Reporting Fellowship program.

Samantha M. Shapiro is a contributing writer for the magazine, where she last wrote about New York City’s homeless students. She is currently an O’Brien fellow in public-service journalism at Marquette University.

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