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For Homeless Students, School Bus Ride Offers Sense of Stability

Florangela Davila
Tanya Emmels

I never paid much attention to school buses until I met driver Tanya Emmels.

Emmels picks up and drops off students without homes.

At a bus depot in Edmonds, she stuffs juice boxes, doughnuts, and chips into bags.

“I know they love these,” she says.

This is how Emmels starts her shift.

It Really Opened Up My Eyes’

Emmels is one of 10 bus drivers in Edmonds who transports homeless kids.

“It really opened up my eyes,” she says. “You know that things go on in the world, and then it’s different when you’re seeing it, when you’re seeing kids that have shoes that have holes in them, and kids that aren’t wearing jackets and it’s freezing cold out.”

A co-worker once told Emmels about a girl who’d sit at the back of the bus every morning and eat little packets of jam you get at a fast-food restaurant.

“And it kind of came out that that was their breakfast,” Emmels says. “That was one of the reasons we started to give them snacks.”

A Sense of Stability 

Federal law requires school districts to educate homeless students. The late Speaker of the House Tom Foley sponsored the legislation that requires all districts to have a homeless liaison. They’re the ones who make sure homeless students are enrolled in school, even if they don’t have the usual paperwork like proof of residency.

Under the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act of 1987, school districts must also offer transportation to a child’s school of origin. So if a student, say, is enrolled in school in Edmonds but then winds up at a shelter in Everett, it’s up to the district to figure out how to get the student back and forth to school.

The law provides some stability to young lives fluttering on the edge. And in Washington state, the number of those students is growing, from 18,670 in the 2007-2008 school year to 27,390 last year.

The Bus Ride Home, to Shelter, Car, Tent

Mid-afternoon, Emmels picks up students from school.

There’s a 16-year-old in the tenth grade. There’s a 13-year-old who shows me every single photo on his flip phone, pointing out himself and his brother.

And then there’s a foursome—three siblings and their friend, all between 11 and 15.

“We all know each other, because we shared a kitchen,” says one of them.

They all met while living at YWCA transitional housing.

“It was hard for me socially, because none of my friends know the situation I’m in, and I don’t really want them to, so,” says one of the students.

Things are now “a little better,” they say. They live in a four-bedroom apartment, and they have their own rooms.

As a bus driver, Emmels sees a lot of things. And they don't always make sense—at first.

"There were some kids I used to drive, aand I would pull up to this beautiful mansion. And I'd think, 'What the heck is going on here?' It turns out they were foster kids and they had just been pulled from their family. And this was a foster home," she says, adding she also transports children in foster care. 

When Emmels drops off a child off at a shelter, she knows there’s some sort of care waiting.

“When you have the car situation, that’s a whole new ballgame,” she says. That’s when Emmels has to drop off a kid at a car, or a tent.

“I, for sure, worry. It just makes your heart sad. And you just, you just think, ‘Tomorrow’s another day. Pick up, and we’ll do it again,’” she says.