And, as The Homestretch demonstrates, this is where the public school system plays an important role. Every school district in the country is legally required to designate so-called "homeless liaisons" for their campuses. But, as the film reveals, these liaisons are often overworked, meaning it's up to the teachers who go above and beyond their duties in the classroom, filling in as de facto social workers.
"When we started having these conversations with teachers, they said, 'We're in this crisis situation and nobody is talking about it. We are scrambling to try to figure out what to do, there are no resources to really support us,'" Kelly said. "Schools really became the kind of replacement home in these situations ... because it's a place where you have shelter, food, and a bathroom so you can have that kind of consistency."
"But also it's also a place where you go every day, and the teachers were probably the only ones in your life asking, 'Where are you going?'"
Barbara Duffield, a director for the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth, touted the documentary for exhibiting how integral educators are to helping get their students into stable living situations. "I have [the documentary] ingrained in my mind. I say that because you would think having seen it that often that it would lose its impact, but it never has," said Duffield, who's worked with homeless children for 20 years and saw the movie six times. "Teachers like Maria who are savvy. They really have to be the eyes and ears because otherwise this is population that tries to blend in."
Most teachers probably know the warning signs: A kid starts dropping grades, acting out, wearing dingy clothes, or, perhaps most telling, putting his or her head on the desk first thing in the morning. Still, teachers must tread lightly, even when asking the simple question: 'Is everything alright?' "Adolescents don't want to be different for any reason, especially if it's because they didn't have shoes," Duffield said.
Other advocates, however, worry about the country's over-reliance on teachers to address homelessness. One of them is Daniel Cardinali, who runs Communities in Schools, a national program focused on creating formal support systems for students to ensure that they don't drop out. The organization for its part employs a team of coordinators who work within the schools. They are trained to identify and address homelessness, theoretically taking some of the onus off of classroom educators.
"Teachers are with the kids all day, but they are not trained to understand what's going on, and they are dealing with 30 other students. We don't think it should be left to chance," Cardinali said. "When schools are places of holistic support, we have a really good chance of catching kids when they are in distress. You have a much higher probability of getting to a problem before it becomes really disastrous."