Last Wednesday afternoon, Rachel, 19, picked up her mother and siblings from the Minneapolis-based homeless shelter they’re staying at and brought them to a city park. They pulled up to the curb and her five younger siblings piled out. Her mother grabbed some lunch food from the shelter, packaged up in to-go boxes.
Rachel pulled out her cellphone and texted: “I’m in the red van.”
I’d just pulled up, a few spots behind them. Rachel (who’s name has been changed for privacy reasons) had agreed to do an interview to share her experience with distance learning while experiencing homelessness. She and her family have been homeless for the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic, and for various periods prior.
Last spring, when all schools shifted to at-home learning, Rachel only made it a couple of weeks before dropping out of her St. Paul-based charter school, High School for Recording Arts. She had picked up daytime work hours, to help support her family. And school dropped down her priority list, even though she had hoped to graduate that spring.
“I couldn’t focus on school,’ she said, noting she was working to cover things like temporary hotel stays and gas for the van.
She’s still working a full-time job — the financial strains of the pandemic have not lessened for her and her family — but she added school back to her docket this fall, re-enrolling at High School for Recording Arts. A second-year senior, she has just a handful of credits left to finish up over the course of this school year.
Determined to stay on track, she’d taken the day off work to get caught up on some school work. We walked toward the homeless tent encampment scattered across the southwest corner of the park, where she’s been sheltering in a tent with her step-dad for the past two months or so, and sat down at a picnic table to talk.
Rachel attended grade school in the Minneapolis Public Schools district. At age 9, she moved to Puerto Rico with her family, where her mother was born and raised. They moved back to the Twin Cities her 10-grade year, but her education got sidetracked. “I was still trying to figure out who I was as a person,” she said, noting she ran away for a period, after coming out to her mother went poorly.
They eventually mended their relationship, banding together to keep their family together through bouts of living out of their van, scraping together donations to cover medical expenses and other hardships. But when the topic of school came up, Rachel didn’t dwell on her circumstances. She went straight to her aspirations: attending a four-year college.
She’s interested in studying studio engineering and business management — or forensic science. “I want to help teens who are homeless,” she said, noting she could help them connect with resources and navigate things like finding housing without a credit score.
To get there, she has to finish high school first — without the structure of an in-person school day and face-to-face interactions with her teachers and advisers. She’s heard murmurs that her school may soon offer some level of in-person learning, so she’s already started shifting her daytime work hours to evening hours, just to be ready.
The distance learning format doesn’t fit her learning style well. “I get really lost,” she said, sharing she struggles with staying focused — and with staying motivated when her depression kicks in.
Her school outfitted her with a laptop, which she charges every day in the family van — holding out hope that the battery doesn’t die and leave her without a charging station. To access WiFi, she uses her siblings’ school-issued hotspot. But that solution doesn’t work past 10 p.m., since she needs to drop them all off at the shelter before curfew each evening.
Given these technology barriers, her teachers have worked out an alternative school work plan. Under current state guidance, attendance can range from physically showing up to class to turning in a paper assignment. In Rachel’s case, she picked up a stack of paper packets — spanning English, biology, chemistry, physics, U.S. government and more — at the start of the school year. She’s been working through the packets, at her own pace — and plans to drop off her first set of complete work soon.
She brings her packets to the fast-food restaurant that she works at 45 hours a week, chipping away at her assignments. She also studies at the park. “I’ve been doing it in my tent, where it’s quiet,” she said.
Lately, the cooler temps have made concentrating on schoolwork even more challenging. She layers up with two or three blankets, plus a sweatshirt, to stay warm through the night. But she still typically only gets three to four hours of sleep, she says.
Some days, she goes to work at 6 a.m. She’ll save her meal break credit to purchase food for her family, to share with everyone after her shift. But that meal plan doesn’t stretch far enough. Reluctantly, she took her teachers up on their offer to come pick up free food, being distributed at school, a couple of days ago. “I’m really scared to ask for help — but I did,” she said, noting she’s now waiting on her next paycheck to come through, so she can go buy more groceries.
For live class meetings, she downloaded a Zoom app on her phone. But she’s hesitant to engage fully on that platform in her at-home learning environment. “I prefer not putting the camera on,” she said, adding she doesn’t “want people seeing where I’m staying.” Most of her peers don’t know about her living situation. And she doesn’t want them to view her any differently.
“It doesn’t matter where you come from, or where you stay — you’re still a human being. You’re still you,” she said.