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Margaret Bingham and her daughter Mariah Bingham, a Chicago Public Schools student, at their current home in Chicago. The Binghams are often homeless or living with friends and family.
Margaret Bingham and her daughter Mariah Bingham, a Chicago Public Schools student, at their current home in Chicago. The Binghams are often homeless or living with friends and family.
James Foster/For the Sun-Times

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Inside the life of a homeless Chicago student in the age of the coronavirus: Fear of failing — or not surviving

She’s 11 years old and one of 17,000 homeless Chicago Public Schools students. She’s pre-diabetic, asthmatic and her neighborhood has the highest number of coronavirus cases in Illinois.

For the first three months, it was a park bench by Douglas Park on the West Side.

Then her older sister’s apartment in Homan Square.

Three different places in Englewood. One over in Gresham.

In all, Mariah Bingham has lived in 13 different places since she was born. She’s likely to be on the move again in the coming months.

She’s 11 years old and one of 17,000 homeless students at Chicago Public Schools.

Mariah’s going into the home stretch of fifth grade having already gone to seven schools, never with a stable learning environment.

Now the coronavirus has taken over, and Mariah feels she might take a step back academically.

That’s not to mention the health concerns: Mariah and her mother are both asthmatic. Her mom is diabetic, Mariah, pre-diabetic.

“I am terrified of the coronavirus,” Mariah says, “because I love my life.”

‘I think I’m going to fall behind’

Mariah stood over a dining room table in early March before schools closed, soda in hand, showing off her neon pink poster plastered with facts about women’s rights activist Sojourner Truth. Mariah was humble, even reluctant to share, but she took pride in her work.

“She just showed she had to fight for what she wanted,” Mariah said of Truth, the figure she picked for her Black History Month project.

Things have changed in the weeks since, and Mariah and her 56-year-old mother, Margaret, have had to keep fighting.

Mariah Bingham, a Chicago Public Schools student, at her current home in Chicago, Tuesday, March 3rd, 2020. Mariah and her mother Margaret are often homeless or living with friends and family.
Mariah Bingham, a Chicago Public Schools student, at her current temporary home in Gresham, Tuesday, March 3rd, 2020.
James Foster/For the Sun-Times

The middle of March marked one year for her at Harvard Elementary, a school on the border of Englewood and Gresham that officials identify as needing extra support. Harvard serves almost entirely black students from low-income families.

Mariah was making progress in school, focusing on her favorite subject, math, and had developed a close-knit group of friends.

But when schools closed, Mariah was left without access to a computer or reliable internet.

“Honestly, I think I’m going to fall behind, definitely,” she said. “I’m kind of scared because if I don’t learn all that I need … it’s gonna be hard for me to get to sixth grade.”

Mariah was sent home with a homework packet when classes stopped nearly a month ago. She finished it three days later and has been bored waiting for more work. CPS is set to start widespread remote learning Monday, and her class has geared up with an online program that teaches various subjects. But Mariah has had trouble following along on her tiny cellphone screen.

“How am I supposed to learn if I can’t even do anything?” she said.

Her mother is in touch with the principal at Harvard in hopes Mariah can be provided with a laptop. CPS is working on distributing 100,000 devices over the coming days and weeks, and students experiencing homelessness are among the priorities.

But the district estimates 115,000 kids need computers and acknowledges the problem can’t be fixed overnight. So for now, a student’s grade can’t be lowered during the closures. Failed or incomplete assignments might have to be made up later.

Alyssa Philips, an education attorney with the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, said the coronavirus closures have magnified societal problems that already exist. Poor or nonexistent internet access, for example, means Mariah and her mom have limited information about how their school is responding to the disruption.

“In these past weeks, there’s just been confusion of Mariah and Margaret not necessarily knowing when they can get a computer, when will they be able to get back to normal, what is learning going to look like,” Phillips said.

The Chicago Teachers Union fought for added protections for homeless students during its strike last fall. The district agreed to add positions dedicated to counseling those children at schools with high homeless populations.

But none of those 18 positions have been filled yet, and Mariah’s school doesn’t have enough kids in similar circumstances to get one anyway. Harvard, like all other CPS schools, has a worker such as a counselor doubling up on those duties.

Thousands of Chicago Teachers Union members and their supporters march through the Near West Side
Thousands of Chicago Teachers Union members and their supporters march through the Near West Side after a rally in Union Park on day five of a Chicago Public Schools district-wide strike, Monday afternoon, Oct. 21, 2019.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

Molly Burke, the CPS administrator in charge of services for homeless students, said the remote learning plan she helped put together directs counselors to stay in constant contact with these vulnerable student populations. That makes it easier for teachers to keep them engaged with instruction.

“All of this learning is based on communication with the teacher,” Burke said.

But the fact remains it’s a tall task for a district with 271,000 students from low-income families, many of whom are bound to fall through the cracks.

“Mariah needs a lot of homework to focus on until school starts back,” her mother said. “If school is not starting back the whole year, what are the kids going to do while they’re out?”

Margaret Bingham looks at her daughter, Chicago Public Schools student Mariah Bingham, at their current home in Chicago, Tuesday, March 3rd, 2020. The Binghams are often homeless or living with friends and family.
Margaret Bingham looks at her daughter Mariah as she explains the struggles of learning while experiencing homelessness.
James Foster/For the Sun-Times

‘Almost impossible to focus on math’

Like most CPS kids experiencing homelessness, Mariah doesn’t live in a shelter or a car or under an expressway.

Mariah and her mother have been “doubled up” for as long as they can remember, Margaret since 1991 when a teen pregnancy led to continued housing instability and no reliable source of income. They’ve moved from one place to another, always living with three, four, five other families, and never staying long enough to call anywhere home.

The mother-daughter duo are now living in Mariah’s late uncle’s house. They moved there in January, a few months after her uncle was fatally shot on the West Side.

The situation is better than where they were, but still not ideal. The heat is broken and costs $500 to fix, money they don’t have. So they’ve been left cold, and Mariah has been sick the past three weeks. She had a fever and a cough and was never tested for COVID-19, but has since recovered, for the most part.

They’ve had to keep riding the CTA bus to go to doctor’s appointments, the pharmacy and grocery shopping. They’re running out of hand soap and are looking to mix rubbing alcohol with lotion to make homemade hand sanitizer. Their health conditions, asthma and diabetes, keep them worried about catching the virus.

Their neighborhood, Gresham, has the highest number of coronavirus cases of any community in Illinois.

“I need to keep her healthy and safe because I cannot lose her,” Margaret said. “That’s my baby.”

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

Phillips said all the barriers standing in Mariah’s way for basic necessities make school an afterthought at times.

“It becomes so hard to focus on basic learning because you’re just trying to survive,” Phillips said. “She loves her life, she doesn’t want to die. And if that’s what you’re thinking about, it’s going to be almost impossible to focus on math.”

‘Finding a home I can call my own’

Before the outbreak shuttered schools, simply getting to class was a challenge.

The last place they lived, Margaret’s godmother’s three-flat unit in Englewood, housed four families. They shared a tiny room on the second floor. Their clothes were piled in tubs because someone else had taken up the closet space.

Getting ready for school in the morning was a hassle. Mariah would have to wait for the other adults and kids to shower before it was her turn. Sometimes kids from down the street would come by to use the shower, too. Then when it was time to take the bus, Mariah often wouldn’t have money for bus fare.

The little money Margaret and Mariah had, they’d spend on food. But oftentimes it would disappear from the fridge before they got a chance to eat it. It was the same story with Mariah’s school supplies, taken before she could use them.

“Most of the time I couldn’t get my homework done,” she said. “Sometimes I would be so mad but I can’t really say nothing because it’s like, we’ve got to live there, I don’t want to get put out. So I had to just be quiet about a lot of things.”

Mariah’s cousin who owns the house they’re living in now has let them stay until they find somewhere else to go.

But it’s been a tough task searching for a rental unit during the coronavirus closures. Margaret said most places aren’t available right now. The only one she found is $750 per month, and her other daughter will help with $400. But it’s on the West Side and would take Mariah an hour and a half on three bus routes to get to Harvard when schools reopen.

Margaret Bingham at her current home in Chicago
Margaret Bingham unwraps a chain around the fence outside her late brother’s house.
James Foster/For the Sun-Times

Their living situation has gotten more stressful the past couple weeks. Two of Margaret’s older sons who are also homeless have begun relying on their mom for food and a roof because their usual spots, a shelter and different friends’ places, have become unavailable. They come in and out of the house at odd hours, leaving Mariah’s sleep schedule severely upended and food harder to come by.

“I’m really trying to find a place where my baby really would be comfortable with because like she said, she’s tired of moving place to place,” Margaret said. “I’m worried about finding a home I can call my own.”

‘I don’t want to leave’

Mariah’s educational career has taken a familiar cycle: Start at a school, move to a new place, switch schools, learn everything all over again.

“I would get to a school and meet somebody I really liked as a friend, and then we’d move,” Mariah said. “It was just like dang. Wow.”

It’s part of the reason she’s been happy to spend the past year at Harvard.

“I know people there, I know how to get around,” she said. “I’m used to this school, and I’m pretty sure I don’t want to leave.”

Alyssa Phillip and Bisma Shoukat
Alyssa Phillip (left) and Bisma Shoukat work at the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless and have helped Mariah and Margaret the past couple years.

Phillips and Bisma Shoukat, a community organizer with the homeless coalition, have worked with Margaret and Mariah for the past two years, teaching them about Mariah’s rights as a homeless student, helping them enroll in a CPS program that provides them resources, securing bus passes and filling out paperwork.

Federal law guarantees Mariah’s right to stay at the same school even if she moves to a different neighborhood; free transportation; waived school fees; and free tutoring. Still, the thought of moving again lurks in the back of her mind.

“I was talking to my friends about this the other day, I was like, ‘I don’t want to leave, yo. I’m so scared,’” Mariah said. “I was just thinking of the worst scenario because that’s usually what I’m used to thinking.

“Usually, when it’s time to move we don’t stay in the same area. We were crying, we were getting emotional. I was like, ‘I’m gonna miss y’all.’ They said, ‘I’m gonna miss you, too.’ I’m gonna miss my teachers, too.”

Mariah Bingham with her Mother Margaret Bingham at their current home in Chicago
Mariah Bingham with her mother Margaret at the dinner table in their temporary Gresham home.
James Foster/For the Sun-Times

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