Homelessness has a thousand meanings for the thousands of people who suffer from it every day in the United States. For the college students who spoke at the June 17th Congressional briefing, “The Voices of Youth: A Discussion on Resilience, Homelessness, and Hope,” their varied experiences with homelessness and poverty made them resilient and hard-working. Thirteen formerly homeless college students from across the country, who have all received scholarships from the NAEHCY (National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth)’s LeTendre Education Fund, discussed the issues that impacted their lives and their struggles. The students brought up problems in schooling, housing, food, foster care, and stability that create nearly insurmountable barriers for many homeless children. Many of the students humbly accredited their successes to luck, citing the thousands of other homeless children across the country.
“I looked at school as an escape path, one that was necessary to succeed. I did all I could to escape my reality at home,” Tina G. wrote in her scholarship essay. Tina, who grew up in an environment plagued by poverty and substance abuse, is now a junior at Salem State University in Massachusetts, majoring in Business Administration with a concentration in Human Resource Management. Many of the students echoed the idea that for them, school was a haven from the chaos of their homelessness.
The briefing operated as a ‘fishbowl,’ where the thirteen students spoke with each other in the center of the room while the audience observed. The questions were moderated by Barb Dexter, local homeless education liaison for the Anchorage School District (Alaska), and covered the entire course of the students’ lives from their first experiences with homelessness as small children to the struggles they continue to face in college.
Homeless high school students face far more stressful situations than housed high school students. While housed students in stable environments worry about schoolwork and extra-curricular activities, homeless students are preoccupied with where they are going to sleep, where they will get their next meal, and how they are going to afford basic living expenses. These teenagers are faced with an undue burden as they struggle to cope with a situation most teens couldn’t possibly imagine, balancing survival and school.
Homeless students are also faced with a myriad of legal issues. As the Law Center’s 2012 report, Alone Without a Home, explains, “Despite the reality that they are living apart from parents or guardians, youth who are legally minors lack the legal status to live independently. Unaccompanied youth and their advocates constantly struggle with legal questions regarding access to shelter, public education, and medical and mental health care; legal rights to rent property and enter into contracts; and, issues of juvenile justice, parental rights, and availability of emancipation.” Homeless students are faced with the daunting task of navigating these issues, while they simultaneously attempt to keep up with their academic commitments.
“I was so envious of other kids who had a house and a family who were able to provide for them. I always felt such anxiety about when I would get to shower again, or if I would ever get new clothes, or when I would eat again,” Zabia P. wrote in his scholarship essay. Zabia just completed his first semester at Lake Sumter State College in Florida.
As cited in the Law Center’s “Homeless Advocacy Education Manual: Disaster Edition,” nearly 100 percent of homeless families move once a year and more than 50 percent of all homeless students change schools at least once a year. Due to this constant change and instability, many homeless children face far more stress than housed children, along with poorer health and nutrition and more absences.
The McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act provides homeless students with increased school stability, immediate access to new schools, funding for programs to address student needs, and personnel dedicated to student needs. Specifically, it allows homeless children to remain at their school of origin, requires school districts to provide transportation for the homeless student, and requires schools to admit homeless students even if they lack the proper documentation, such as proof of residence or immunization reports. The McKinney-Vento Act, which the Law Center was instrumental in implementing, was necessary in providing education for all the students who testified at “The Voices of Youth.” These students would never have been able to succeed if they had not had the support of the McKinney-Vento Act on their side.
Despite the variety of the thirteen students’ experiences, each of their stories echoed a common belief that they are not defined by their past homelessness. The students have held onto their dreams and hope for the future despite struggling with situations that no child should ever be exposed to. As these students fight for themselves, demonstrating incredible resolve to overcome any challenge they may face, the Law Center continues to fights for them and thousands of homeless students like them.
– Elissa Miller and Molly Soloff, Development & Communications Interns