Photo by David Pirtle

For the past six years, students at Alice Deal Middle School have dedicated one day near the end of the school year to community service. Previously, the “Deal Gives Back” service day has organized fundraisers, shifts at Capitol Area Food bank, cleanups at Rock Creek Park and mural painting.  This year, however, rising student awareness of local homelessness issues has inspired them to take it to the next level.

One hundred middle school students will lead an all-day rally  in front of the Wilson Building  on Wednesday, June 3 in support of homeless anti-discrimination legislation.

“This year, we wanted to give the day of service more meaning,” said Mike Martini, a sixth grade geography teacher at Alice Deal who’s been involved in Deal Gives Back for four years. “We didn’t want it to just be one day of helping, we want the students to actually learn about the service they are contributing to.”

Martini and his fellow teachers have spent the past year educating students about homelessness across the curriculum. From learning about homeless stigmas in Social Studies to crafting agreements for homeless rights in English class, the students have been fully immersed in this often-unexplained symptom of poverty. Knowing this, the National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH) asked the school to partner with them on new legislation to include the homeless population in city anti-discrimination laws.

“I didn’t know homeless people in D.C. could be turned down by law enforcement for help,” said Nico Foxley, Alice Deal sixth grader and member of the student committee behind the event.  “I don’t think enough people know about it. That’s why I’m involved.”

Foxley, along with other students-turned-advocates, has spent the past month writing letters to and calling the offices of Councilmember Mary Cheh and Mayor Muriel Bowser. After reading NCH reports (and others) on homeless rights, the student committee created a PowerPoint presentation with their findings and reasoning behind supporting NCH’s legislative push. Ideally, Martini said, the students will present their slides to both the Mayor and councilmembers at a formal meeting.

“I really hope they listen and consider our requests,” Foxley said.

Whether they get a meeting or not, the students are taking all the right steps to make sure the rally goes as planned, according to Martini. A sixth grader even made the call to get an event permit from the city. The experience has been eye opening to Martini as a middle school teacher.

“I’ve gotten to see an understanding, emotional side of the students, one you don’t see when you pass them in the halls with their friends,” Martini said. “They are much more open-minded to these issues than you’d expect. It’s great watching them interact with homeless people, and realize it’s okay to do—especially when they learn how just a smile can change someone’s day.”

The most challenging part was breaking the preconceived stereotypes some students had about homelessness, according to Martini. After that, convincing them that homeless people had rights too was a “pretty easy sell.”

“I learned that anyone could be homeless, and it wasn’t a choice,” said Sophia Giorgianni, another Alice Deal sixth grader.

Giorgianni first became interested in homeless people when she volunteered with a friend at Miriam’s Kitchen.

“It was really cool. Well, no, it wasn’t just cool—it touched my heart. And made me very fortunate to have a home,” Giorgianni said.

She is also a member of the student committee organizing the June 3 rally and has high hopes for its success.

“I want it to be a chance for the community to stand up for someone more. For people to actually do something,” Giorgianni said.

Has this project motivated the students to work for homeless rights in the future?

Giorgianni and Foxley agree: “Absolutely.”