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Youth Share Three Ways to Fight Homelessness

When 13 young adults who had experienced homelessness met at the U.S. Capitol for a briefing of congressional staffers, the message was simple. 

“Homeless people are still human beings…we deserve love, we deserve compassion, we deserve your help.”

As part of the Education Leads Home campaign––a collaboration between SchoolHouse Connection, Civic Enterprises, the Institute for Children, Poverty and Homelessness, and America’s Promise Alliance––the event brought together youth from across the country who have experienced homelessness, most of whom chose to remain anonymous. 

Hailing from Alaska, Arkansas, California, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Maine, Missouri, Montana, New York, North Carolina, Texas, Utah, and Washington state, these young people demonstrated that homelessness can happen anywhere. 

Barbara Duffield, Executive Director of SchoolHouse Connection, introduces the panel.
Barbara Duffield, Executive Director of SchoolHouse Connection, introduces the panel.

“Homelessness is very easy to fall into…it’s one crisis away,” explained one of the youth leaders on the panel in response to a question by moderator Victoria Pasquantonio, education editor at PBS NewsHour. 

While the crises that lead to homelessness vary––an incarcerated parent, a caretaker deported, a relative with mental illness or drug addiction––certain themes emerged as participants discussed the extraordinary barriers they faced and the supports that helped them succeed. 

Here’s what they want you to know.

Early identification is key. 

Throughout the event, panelists emphasized the need to combat the invisibility of homelessness. 

“The biggest barrier was being identified…People can’t help if they don’t know, that’s the first step,” one panelist noted. 

In the 2013-2014 school year, 1.3 million students were identified as homeless, a seven percent increase from the year prior, and more than twice the number of students identified in 2006-2007. 

However, this is almost certainly an undercount; factors such as stigma, fear, bullying, and concern over being separated from their families often prevents students and parents from reporting their conditions. In the 2016 Hidden in Plain Sight report, released by America’s Promise Alliance, 67 percent of formerly homeless students reported that they were uncomfortable or very uncomfortable discussing their housing situation with people at school, whether peers or adults. Anecdotal interviews revealed that for many young people, no one at their school was ever aware of their situation. 

Given the extraordinary challenges that homelessness poses, advocates and survivors say that identifying individuals who might remain unnoticed is crucial. Creating or leveraging pre-existing early warning systems and teaching adults who work with young people to recognize common indicators of homelessness can help with early identification. 

“Please continue to search and identify those of us who fly under the radar,” urged one young person who wasn’t identified as homeless until his senior year of high school. 

Education offers a path forward.

“There is no one-size-fits-all solution to homelessness. Every person's situation is different,” said one young person. 

Still, multiple panelists offered education as the means by which they could break the cycles of homelessness for themselves and their families. 

Across the United States, young people who experience homelessness are 87 percent more likely to drop out of school. And without a high school degree, young people are 4.5 times more likely to experience homelessness later in life, thus perpetuating a cycle of poverty and unstable circumstances. 

Conversely, keeping students who experience homelessness on track to complete their degrees enables individuals to secure stable and healthy living conditions for themselves and their families.

“I have always seen education as my path out of the darkness of the world,” said one young woman. 

Every one of the speakers at the briefing had successfully completed the requirements to obtain a high school diploma. Several were working towards post-secondary degrees. 

One young woman shared how her education has changed her hopes and plans for the future. With better job prospects, she said, she plans to secure stable housing for her younger sister and support her way through school.

Schools should have flexible policies.

As one young person explained, “homelessness isn’t just not having a physical home.” Rather, it affects all aspects of a person’s life and education. 

“It becomes almost impossible to get your work done…you’re not listening to the teacher if you’re worried about where you’re gonna shower,” another added. 

That’s why, the panelists explained, it’s critical for institutions to be receptive to and allow special accommodations for youth experiencing homelessness. 

In addition to the lack of basic resources – where to get the next meal, where to wash clothes, where to get an internet connection to complete an assignment –  homelessness creates a series of additional institutional burdens. Students won’t necessarily have an address to fill out financial aid forms, or access to their parents’ records and information. Panelists called for schools to be flexible in responding to the needs of individuals at all levels and create policies that support rather than penalize students in non-standard situations. 

“It’s problematic when people in the system are uninformed on practices, it perpetuates my trauma,” said one young woman.