WASHINGTON – His bed was snugly made, and four pair of sneakers formed a neat line beneath his extra-long twin bed. An iron that Dajon Duvall borrowed from his dorm's residential adviser sat on a wooden desk that was crammed on his side of the room.
Every day, the 18-year-old irons his T-shirts and jeans, a habit he picked up in eighth grade after spending two years living with his mom and younger sisters in hotel rooms in central Florida.
The routine endured, even as Duvall bounced from house to house throughout his childhood.
Each morning this summer, he ironed before grabbing a quick breakfast of Quaker oatmeal and racing off to class with his professors at American University. The aspiring documentary maker and recent District of Columbia high school graduate is taking summer courses in photography, broadcast journalism and communications.
"My mom always said the way you look and dress matters," the college-bound Duvall said.
Duvall was one of the more than 5,500 D.C. public school students considered homeless during the 2018-2019 academic year. The city paid the summer tuition for Duvall and about 20 other homeless teens to attend a two-week summer session at AU that ended last week. They enrolled with more than 600 high-schoolers or recent graduates from around the world, living on campus like any other college student.
"I feel like I'm in college already," Duvall said. "I'm enjoying it. I get along with my roommate."
Numbers trending upward
While the ranks of the homeless overall in D.C. have decreased for three straight years, the number of homeless students has trended upward.
About 6 percent of students in the traditional public and charter school sectors were homeless in 2018-2019. That's a slight decrease from the year before, but the number has generally been trending upward: The number of homeless students jumped from 3,077 in 2014 to 5,593 in 2019.
The federal McKinney-Vento Act broadly defines which students are considered homeless, including children who are living with relatives or friends because they lack permanent housing. The law is intended to address the reality that many children who don't have a permanent bed – not just those living in shelters or other public spaces – could use academic and social support.
When Duvall moved back to D.C. from Florida in eighth grade, his mother purchased a home from an aunt. But his family said the dilapidated house did not meet the city code and was condemned.
He moved into his grandmother's home in Washington, where he still shares a room with her. Sometimes, as many as 10 relatives live there, including his two younger siblings. Because the house is so crowded, his mother often resides at a different relative's home.
Hanseul Kang, the state superintendent of education, said each D.C. public school has a liaison trained to identify homeless students. The rise in homeless students comes amid skyrocketing housing prices in the city, but Kang said it largely reflects improved efforts by the city to identify students who meet the federal definition for homelessness.
This allows the city to provide these students with additional support, including transportation and access to the superintendent's Summer Bridge program, which spent more than $100,000 this year to send students to AU and give graduating homeless seniors college starter kits. The kits include a laptop, dorm bedding, cleaning supplies and an alarm clock.
National census data shows that students from low-income families earn college diplomas at far lower rates than their wealthier peers, and city officials said that they believe the AU summer program could help Duvall acclimate to college life – and ultimately graduate.
"We know that each child is capable of learning at high levels, but that sometimes these vulnerable students may need additional support to access those opportunities," Kang said.
Dajon finds his focus
Duvall said he fell behind in his academics when he lived in hotels in Florida, often stymied in his quest to find transportation to school. He struggled his first few years back in D.C., but by 10th grade, he said, he turned his academics around.
He became focused, his sights set on college. He played high school sports and managed to maintain his grades while working at a bustling restaurant to help pay his family's electric and cable bills.
At AU, his dreams of making documentary films came into sharper focus. He relished having access to state-of-the-art equipment and accomplished filmmakers. He visited a sports broadcasting studio and learned about deadlines. He took photos on the sidelines of a Washington Nationals game, capturing a photo of shortstop Trea Turner.
Wearing the brightly bedecked and spiked sneakers he debuted at his senior prom, he spent 90 minutes taking photographs of scenes on campus and of children at a nearby camp. In that time, he captured about 1,000 images.
On the bus back to campus, some students joked around, but Duvall remained focused, flipping through photos on his camera, reviewing his best shots.
"I like photographing toddlers, because if you take them from below, they look like giants," Duvall said, crouched on the floor.
His photography professor, Larry Levin, said he has encountered few teenagers with Duvall's talent at capturing intimate moments and expressions.
"They're amazing. I didn't know a high school kid could shoot like that," Levin said.
'These are kids struggling'
Sarah Flohre, a lawyer at the Children's Law Center, a legal advocacy organization, said children who do not have stable housing face unremitting stress, worried about what happens next and unable to focus on school. According to city data, homeless students score well below city averages on standardized tests.
"These are kids struggling with really difficult things," she said. "They are facing the same problems that a child in a shelter does."
Freshman year in North Carolina
Next month, Duvall's mother and siblings plan to drive him to Livingstone College in North Carolina for his freshman year, expecting to move him into a dorm, his home for the next year.
Duvall said his first documentary will be about his mother – a woman who prioritized her children, making them feel like kids even as they endured hardship, he said.
And when he becomes successful, he plans to buy his mother a home of her own.
"I'm not forgetting where I came from," he said. "No matter how big and famous I get."