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Be the One: Making a Difference for Homeless Youth

July 1, 2018|By Jeanne Stamp

When you think of a typical high school experience, what comes to mind? For most of us, we likely envision a seamless trajectory from freshman to senior year, with a safe homelife and a diploma. 

But for students experiencing homelessness, a path through high school is anything but typical. 

This spring, educators, homeless liaisons, and other professionals from the Dana Center and elsewhere heard first-hand from nine homeless high school students about their struggles and successes as they prepare to graduate from high school. 

This Voices of Youth Count session put real faces to the grim statistics we hear about the plight of homeless youth. While many Americans may think of these students’ experiences as atypical, in reality there are more than 1.3 million homeless children identified by public schools in the U.S. and more than 116,000 students identified as homeless in Texas. 

As the high school students spoke, with a trained facilitator moderating, nearly all told of physical abuse, neglect, and drug and alcohol abuse by caretakers. Many of these young people had been homeless continually for years.

Sharing Their Stories

These young people’s stories were hard to hear. 

A young man staying with an older sister learned just before the session that he could not go back to her house. He wondered aloud where he was going to go when his plane landed back home—would there even be anyone to meet him? 

A young woman spoke of the serious health problems she must deal with every day because her mother used drugs while pregnant.

Another young woman shared how she had spoken out against abuse from a stepfather—but was ignored.

A young man identified his mother’s drug use and mental illness as the cause of their homelessness. Despite that, he expressed a deep love for his mother and obvious sadness that he couldn’t help her. 

We heard from nearly every student in attendance about their frustration and anger with the systems meant to protect them. 

Systems that include individual social workers like me. 

Social workers who did not recognize the difficulties these youth were experiencing, or who looked the other way, or who believed caretakers when they denied that any abuse, neglect, or drug use was taking place in the home. 

School: A Safe Haven

We in the audience could feel the ring of anger in these youth’s voices when they talked about how many times they had to reach out for help.

With all these crises in the lives of these students, is it any wonder that students who experience homelessness also experience difficulty in their education?

According to the Institute for Children, Poverty, and Homelessness, “Students experiencing homelessness are 87% more likely to drop out of school, and adults without a high school degree or GED are 4.5 times more likely to experience homelessness.” 

Yet for all these challenges, many of the students also spoke of school as a ray of light—a safe haven. 

They found school to be a place where they were able to get needs met, such as access to a warm meal, appropriate clothing, or school supplies. It’s a place where, most importantly, they found a caring adult who was willing to see their circumstances and do something to help. 

Many students talked about the impact of just one person who cared enough to see more in them than perhaps the students saw in themselves. 

The football coach who created a safe, uplifting environment.

The science teacher who offered a student a room in their own home.

The guidance counselor who helped make the dream of college a reality.

Those of us in the audience that day left the talk feeling dismayed. Many of these students are still living in unstable situations, and their final chapters of homelessness have yet to be written. Beyond that, these were just nine of thousands of students in the state of Texas who experience homelessness. 

But we also experienced appreciation for the way these students are overcoming their obstacles and succeeding in graduating high school.

In fact, these students were in Austin to receive college scholarships presented during the SXSWEdu kickoff of the national Education Leads Home campaign, a partnership of SchoolHouse ConnectionCivic EnterprisesAmerica’s Promise Alliance, and the Institute for Children, Poverty, and Homelessness. The campaign’s goal is to increase graduation rates for students in homeless situations and to improve their access to—and success in—postsecondary education.

Are You Willing to Be the One?

We know there are solutions for these students’ situations. 

We know education is the most certain way out of poverty and homelessness. We know that a good education creates a foundation for future success, autonomy, and productivity. 

The federal McKinney-Vento Act is grounded in this knowledge. This legislation provides the framework within which public school districts must identify, enroll, and support students in homeless situations from preschool through graduation—and on to postsecondary education. 

But the intent of federal and state laws to help homeless students access a free and appropriate public education can only be realized through the actions of dedicated school staff. The McKinney-Vento Act requires that a homeless liaison be appointed in every school district (also known as a local educational agency, or LEA). 

School staff must be willing to notice the stressors for homeless students and be ready to advocate and act within their school districts and communities to ensure that barriers are removed and supports are enacted.

As these students speaking through Voices of Youth Count remind us, it is important that:

  • At least one school staff member be dedicated to ensuring the rights of homeless students within their district and uniformly across all the district’s campuses. 
  • At least one school staff member develops a caring relationship with homeless students. 
  • At least one school staff member works with at least as much determination as these students do to support them in learning and succeeding and achieving the dream of higher education and a better life.

If it is true, as these students attested, that even one person can make a difference in the life of a student, then it seems to me that each of us—especially those of us who work directly with students—should ask ourselves if we can be that person.

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Categories: Blog, Student Success


About the Author

Jeanne Stamp

I am a social worker—both by profession and at heart. Helping families and their children who are experiencing poverty and homelessness is truly a passion, and I’ve dedicated my life to it for over 35 years. I have witnessed remarkable progress in that time, and I have seen countless lives changed.