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What’s Working: In Colorado, A Simple Approach Helps Homeless Students Succeed in College

In almost all public and nonprofit colleges and universities in Colorado, unaccompanied homeless youth can expect to find a caring adult trained in meeting homeless students’ needs. The state calls these adults “single points of contact”—SPOCs. Here’s some advice on how to replicate the model.

When a group of K-12 and higher education leaders in Colorado began asking previously homeless youth what helped them enroll and stay in college, a clear theme emerged.

“They talked again and again of a supportive adult,” said Dana Scott, the 21st Century Community Learning Centers state coordinator and supervisor.

“Sometimes it was a counselor, sometimes it was a mentor, sometimes it was a janitor or a bus driver, someone who stepped in and helped them fill out paperwork and figured out what they might need,” Scott continued.

They listened, then acted, creating a way for unaccompanied homeless youth (youth experiencing homelessness while not in the physical company of a parent or guardian) to have access to supportive adults in higher education. Their idea? Designating single points of contacts (SPOCs)—adults already working at colleges and universities in offices like financial aid or admissions—to help unaccompanied homeless youth apply to and succeed in college.

Colorado started implementing the SPOC model in 2009, and SPOCs can now be found in almost all public and nonprofit colleges and universities across the state. Screen shot taken from endhomelessness.org

How It Works

To most people at Aims Community College, Mary Giggy is a financial aid adviser. But for unaccompanied homeless youth, she’s also their single point of contact, the one person they can turn to with any question or concern.

“My role is providing resources,” Giggy said. She often connects students to food pantries and counseling services, and she might talk to student services about waiving fees to replace a lost student ID. Sometimes SPOCS work with other departments to ensure housing is in place over breaks and that students have a meal plan.

In many ways, SPOCs serve as what the Center for Promise calls the “anchoring relationship” for young people. In Don’t Quit on Me, researchers found that a single caring adult can often serve as a gateway to a “Web of Support,” or a broader network of adults that connect students to the resources they need.

A Statewide Network

The most common way for Giggy to connect with unaccompanied homeless youth is through the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).

Certain questions, such as, “Were you ever a ward of the court?” clue her in to which students need support. But she also gets recommendations from high school counselors, and she stresses how much a peer network helps her emotionally and professionally.

“This work is sometimes difficult, and you hear stories that are very emotional,” she said. “It helps to have a network of people who have gone through this before so we can bounce ideas off of each other and count on a support network.”

SPOCs across Colorado attend annual trainings, and many stay in touch throughout the year, asking for advice on tough situations and sharing solutions.

Fight Stigma, Be Flexible, Work Together

Giggy and Scott have strong advice for other states interested in implementing the SPOC model.

They both stress the importance of addressing stigma and are careful not to use the term “homeless youth,” but rather “independent youth.”

Giggy also has a protocol for running into her students in public. “I don’t acknowledge them unless they acknowledge me,” she said, stressing the importance of confidentiality and using “a trauma-based approach” to this work.

Scott, who served as the state coordinator for the education of homeless children and youth when the model took off in 2008-2009, says having people from both higher education and the K-12 system come together to create the model is key. From there, she advises state employees to consider what’s already working to support homeless youth, what challenges stand in their way, and how to include youth input.

Scott also stresses the importance of being flexible and adapting the model to meet local needs. “It doesn’t have to look exactly like this model,” she said. The most important thing is having that supportive adult who can be “a champion for students.”

And, like Giggy, Scott stresses the importance of asking for help.

“Don’t be overwhelmed or intimidated. You don’t have to know all the answers. You just have to have the right people in the room who are willing to work through it.”

This article is part of the “What’s Working” series, which highlights promising practices for helping to close the graduation gap in communities and states across the country.

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