Battling Homelessness, Crime on the Path to Graduation

Christopher Feaster never unpacked when he and his mother moved to a new apartment.

"I was always prepared in case my mom and I got evicted," he says. He may not show it, but Christopher, a bespectacled 17-year-old who proudly wears his uniform from Hospitality High School in Northeast D.C., has been through some tough times.

He's been intermittently homeless throughout his high school years, something that has often made attending his Northeast D.C. high school difficult or nearly impossible. Still, he's expecting to graduate in May, one of many at-risk teens in D.C. public schools who manage to overcome hardships to finish their studies.

Homelessness often insurmountable for high school students

Staying in school with an ever-changing address hasn't been easy for Christopher. That's because his mother had a hard time holding down a job and they frequently couldn't pay the rent.

"For the most part, things stayed in containers, so all I had to do was store some trophies here, put some papers there, done," he says. "My room is packed up perfectly ready to go."

Christopher also had to ration food, and hide the fact that he couldn't afford to do laundry more than once a month.

"I would have to re-wear socks. They were white socks but they were so dirty that they were brown and at times sometimes they were starting to go black," he says. "I had to re-wear underwear."

This past summer marked the most recent eviction for Christopher and his mother. They moved to a shelter where they share a room, but he isn't used to the 9:30 p.m. curfew or some of the rules — especially one that says he needs to stay with his mother at all times when they are at the shelter.

That rule has strained their relationship; for a few months, he stopped talking to her. "I didn't feel like she tried hard enough in order to get another job, so it frustrated me," he says.

Still, it's clear Christopher adores his mother. She was 19 when he was born, and he often refers to them as "twins." His appreciation is palpable as he talks about how she's never let him give up on his education.

"Since as far as I can remember, 'Chris, you are not allowed to put anything before school ... nothing,'" he recalls her always saying. "'Chris, I don't care if you only have 45 seconds of school, you're going and you better come home and tell me something new that you learned.'"

School and other social support systems crucial

Children who are homeless are much more likely to drop out; one study shows that only 50 percent of children who are homeless for some period of high school will graduate. Christopher's positive attitude has been tested. He has to travel farther and get to school earlier now to use the internet. Sometimes it gets to be too much.

"If I felt like I was tearing up I'd go to the bathroom, I'd look at myself in the reflection, I'd be like 'okay Chris, calm down just breathe, just breathe,'" he says. "There was only one time where I slipped up and I actually cried in class."

Christopher confides in several teachers and friends at Hospitality High School in Northeast D.C., and he talks to adults at his church as well. His sunny outlook helps; he tries to live by the African Sankofa principle, which means learning from your past to better your future.

"I look at my mom, primarily the mistakes she's made," he says. "I've told this to her. I don't like the decisions she's made, and I refuse to make them in the future. And she told me 'that's what I want you to do.'"

Following this philosophy has paid off. Christopher will start at Michigan State University this fall on a four-year full scholarship.

Arrests hinder chances of graduation

Just like Christopher, Travaris Chambers is about to graduate from high school in D.C. Both have had struggles and triumphs, although they represent different points along the educational spectrum.

Travaris, 22, admits in a softspoken tone that he's made a lot of mistakes. Tattoos cover his arms; they represent how he was feeling at different points in his life, he says. One reads "Love Don't Live Here Anymore" and another "Loyalty Over Love."

"I'd rather someone tell me they loyal to me rather than they love me," he explains. "Because anyone can tell you they love you and hurt you."

Travaris lived by the street code. By his own admission, he had attitude and anger issues. He bought a gun; he says it was for protection.

"A lot of young kids been dying. A lot," he says. "At times, people trying to rob you, people coming round your way." One night when he was 17, he was driving to a party and some teenagers walked across the street, forcing him to brake.

"I was already mad and really upset. So I got out of the car and they pushed me. And I hit him with the gun, hit him again and took his jacket. I took his coat and drove off. It was snowing," he says. "I didn't want the coat. It was just to teach him a lesson."

Travaris was charged with nine counts, including armed robbery. He went to prison for three years, but he didn't see that as anything unusual.

"Everybody goes to jail, you're going to find someone you know, crews or gangs or whatever," he says. "I knew people. People I went to high school with. People that I knew from the streets, people I used to see in the club."

A hard-fought second chance

Trouble with the law is another major contributor to kids dropping out; one study shows that students with a first-time arrest in high school are twice as likely to drop out as their peers, and a court appearance makes them four times as likely to drop out.

When Travaris got out of prison, the school that expelled him wouldn't take him back because at 22, he was too old. But he was too young for another program he applied to, that one for a GED certificate. So Travaris enrolled at Luke C. Moore Academy in Northeast, a D.C. public school for at-risk students looking for a second chance.

It's not common for students to leave prison and go back to high school. Nor is it easy. Travaris is embarrassed he's so much older than other students. He's not used to sitting still to listen to a teacher, and he's had to repeat classes.

Going back to school has also cost him money. He compares his paycheck from his Saturday part-time retail job with the money he used to make on the streets selling drugs and robbing people.

"$40, what is that? It's nothing, for real," he says, laughing. "I had friends say, 'you're going to work for that little, $50, I can make that right now in two minutes."

With lessons learned comes a new desire to do better

But with all the challenges, Travaris is determined to turn his life around. He comes to school on time every day and stays after class to complete assignments. He also mentors other students, telling them about the scary side of street life.

"They look at it like we're in the same generation. I'm not no 30-year-old grown man telling them, 'You here, you might as well do something right with it,'" he says.

Since Travaris went back to school, his GPA is 2.6 and he's come further than he ever thought possible. For the first time in his life, he has teachers who believe in him.

"Before I met them I thought I just want a regular job, now I can push myself," he says. "You only going to be what you set yourself to be."

He tries not to dwell on the years he lost, or the careers closed off to him because of his felony conviction. He keeps his eyes fixed on graduation -- on that moment that he can post a photo on Facebook of him holding his high school diploma.

"Because it's not that many people who can say they got their high school diploma," he says.

Travaris' future will depend on continuing to make positive choices and believing his past is his past. For now, he sees his high school diploma as the first step in opening the door to his future.