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How strangers helped homeless Chicago students stay connected to the classroom after their schools closed

The Chicago Coalition for the Homeless received 31 laptops and $1,395 in gift cards to hand out to families in need after CPS student Mariah Bingham shared her story of trying to survive during the pandemic.

Bisma Shoukat (left), a community organizer with the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, gives laptops to Gregory Harris (right) and Joshua Maldonado (middle), May 6, 2020.
Bisma Shoukat (left), a community organizer with the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, gives laptops to Gregory Harris (right) and Joshua Maldonado (middle), May 6, 2020.
Victor Hilitski/For the Sun-Times

When Margaret Bingham and her daughter Mariah shared their experience as a homeless Chicago Public Schools family during the coronavirus pandemic, they never imagined how many strangers would offer to lend a hand.

They’ve received gift cards for groceries, school supplies, a new laptop for Mariah to do her homework and even an offer from a bus driver to give them rides whenever they can’t pay for one.

But the part that has made Margaret happiest is seeing their life story cause an outpouring of resources to the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless to support other families in similar circumstances.

“It feels great because it helps a lot of parents who are doubled up with other families and have problems with their children,” Margaret, 56, said Wednesday. “It’s been really good, I appreciate it.”

The mother and daughter recounted their struggles and perseverance living without a permanent home in a Chicago Sun-Times story last month, and described how COVID-19 has made life and school that much harder.

Mariah, 11, is in fifth grade and has lived 13 places and gone to seven schools. She’s one of 17,000 CPS students experiencing homelessness, and she and her mom are both diabetic and asthmatic. At the time, Mariah, with only a cellphone, said she feared she could fail her classes.

Community ‘touched’ by Mariah’s story

Alyssa Phillips, an education attorney with the homeless coalition, said the public response to Margaret and Mariah’s experience was immediate.

A stream of people started reaching out the day the story was published — and continued for weeks — to donate laptops, school supplies and gift cards. Teachers offered tutoring, and a sock company, Bombas, sent Mariah new socks. In all, the coalition received 31 laptops and $1,395 in gift cards for the homeless families the organization supports.

“We just kept receiving emails from folks about how touched they were by Mariah and Margaret, and how they just didn’t realize what was going on, that there were these kids who are struggling so much,” Phillips said. “They just kept saying they were so touched and wanted to contribute in any way that they could.”

Margaret Bingham and her daughter Mariah Bingham at their current home in Chicago, Tuesday, March 3rd, 2020.
Margaret Bingham and her daughter Mariah Bingham at their current home in Chicago, Tuesday, March 3rd, 2020.
James Foster/For the Sun-Times

CPS on its own lent out 102,000 laptops and tablets the past three weeks after the district started remote learning last month with one in three students without computer access. A few days after Mariah shared her story, CPS also announced it would loan 12,000 mobile internet hotspot devices to students who are homeless.

Bisma Shoukat, a coalition community organizer who has worked with Margaret and Mariah for two years, said she was overwhelmed to see their experience resonate to the level it did.

“People know homelessness is an issue, you know? But sometimes people don’t relate to issues, they relate to people’s stories and emotions,” Shoukat said.

One of the first people who reached out to help ended up donating Mariah’s new laptop. And then more kept coming.

“All the other calls we got we were like, ‘OK, Mariah’s taken care of, but there are all these other families we work with,’” Shoukat said. “And these individuals were like, ‘Yes, you’ve got it, let me send this, please.’”

Shoukat and another coalition worker have distributed the laptops over the past few weeks. She said the families who have received them have been thankful and crying because the laptops will also help the parents fill out housing and other applications.

Another mother in tears

April Harris, a mother of two CPS kids aged 10 and 13, said she was in tears when she found out her son Gregory and daughter Madison would be getting a laptop. Another CPS student, Joshua Maldonado, also received a laptop Wednesday from the coalition.

“They still can’t believe that they have a computer,” Harris said Wednesday evening, after Shoukat dropped off donations to the family. “They think it’s so cool, it’s so awesome. And they’re truly thankful to Margaret and her daughter for sharing their story and we’re truly thankful for the public for blessing us with a computer. It’s a laptop, and it’s ours.”

Gregory Harris (left) and Joshua Maldonado explore their new laptops they received from Bisma Shoukat, a community organizer with the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, on Wednesday, May 6, 2020.
Gregory Harris (left) and Joshua Maldonado explore their new laptops they received from Bisma Shoukat, a community organizer with the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, on Wednesday, May 6, 2020.
Victor Hilitski/For the Sun-Times

Phillips said Margaret over the past couple years has become involved with the coalition as a grassroots organizer sharing her story to inspire other parents.

“This was such a tangible way where Margaret knew she was really helping people,” Phillips said.

“Having this pandemic has really highlighted just how fragile our systems are, that our social safety nets aren’t really sufficient to protect the most vulnerable people,” Phillips said. “And I think their story really highlighted that.

“I’m hopeful that people will see that we need these systems. Because you can’t shelter in place if you don’t have an adequate shelter. It’s becoming abundantly clear that this isn’t something you can just ignore.”

Margaret said the resources have a been a big help in allowing Mariah to keep up with homework and putting food on the table. Margaret is also going to use one of the gift cards to buy a cellphone after hers broke.

“It’s really helping her out good. She’s using her laptop for her schoolwork. She’s so happy about it she won’t let me use it,” Margaret said, laughing.

“It’s wonderful. I’m proud of her, her report card is all As and Bs, I’m proud of me and Mariah.”