Thirty-nine percent of the national homeless population are children, and approximately half of those children drop out of school. It is tough for homeless teenagers to fathom how they can finish school and attend college while also looking for a place to sleep, food to eat, and just trying to survive on daily basis.
Last Tuesday, at a Congressional briefing titled “Voices of Youth: A Discussion on Homelessness,” thirteen currently and formerly homeless youths from across the country shared their stories. They are students who received scholarships from the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth (NAEHCY)’s LeTendre Education Fund.
The briefing was held in the Dirksen Senate Office Building room and attended by staff from NAEHCY and the offices of Senators Patty Murray and Lisa Murkowski. The students sat in a circle, facing each other instead of the audience. The moderator explained this was to make them feel more comfortable. A number were visibly nervous.
The majority of the students became homeless as a result of bad living situations. Most of their families struggled with domestic violence, drug/alcohol problems, and family deaths that resulted in neglect. One student became homeless at eight years old because his father had a serious drug problem and his mother was disabled and could not earn a living. They moved around, but they were usually rejected from shelters due to his father’s drug use. Another student explained that her parents were alcoholics and she could not bear living in that environment. A third student talked about caring for his loving sister who suffers from cerebral palsy. He was forced into this role when his mother died because his father saw the child as a burden. Many others discusses witnessing domestic violence or experiencing abuse—triggers that led them to flee to safety.
The unbearable living situations pushed the youths to focus on schoolwork more. When asked why they found education so important, they answered that it was an escape for them. But that is not the only reason they work hard to succeed. One pointed out that they must do well in school in order to escape this situation permanently.
“To get a good job with a good salary, you must do well in school,” said one student.
Unfortunately, school is not always an escape. Many explained that they felt scared to disclose their homelessness to a teacher or counselor. They did not want to be placed in foster care or be separated from their family. At the same time, they wished that they received more support, such as free meals at school, extra tutoring, and better transition to college. Some expressed their anger towards counselors who turned their back on them when they asked for help.
Another common issue this population faces is accessing student financial aid. A couple of youths explained that they had a difficult time working with financial aid counselors, in part because it is difficult for them to prove they are financially independent when they lack information about their parents.
A young woman explained that being homeless creates a lot of different barriers. Their lack of life-proving documents, such as a Social Security card, keeps them from applying for a variety of aid. They struggle to find a place to sleep, eat, do laundry, bathe, and so on. They are afraid of being kicked out of their temporary housing. The bottom line is, they don’t have what many Americans take for granted.
- Stephanie Johnston, Development & Communications Intern