The first person I told about my family’s eviction in 2010 was my junior prom date, Kevin. As supportive and wonderful as my teachers and counselors were in high school, I was scared that the moment would define me and that telling them would cause something bad to happen—what exactly, I’m not sure—but I was scared. I was embarrassed. And so I held it in.
Hiding the news made me feel invisible and burdened. It was as if this traumatic experience was a second backpack, one that weighed a thousand pounds, and I couldn’t put it down.
Every year, more than 1 million kids experience this feeling. A new study, Hidden in Plain Sight: Homeless Students in America’s Public Schools, unleashes the contents of this thousand-pound backpack through interviews with 150 students who have been there. Sixty-seven percent of them said they were uncomfortable talking with people at their school about their situation, just like I was.
The report also includes interviews with and a survey of state coordinators and district liaisons who work with homeless students, plus pages of recommendations for how educators, policymakers and community organizations can better support homeless students.
As someone who’s been there, I agree with many of the report’s recommendations—especially when it comes to what students and adults need to make the weight of homelessness feel just a little bit lighter.
It was no surprise to me that 54 percent of homeless students surveyed said that concrete supports (like housing, food and transportation) and emotional supports are equally important. But I was troubled to read that only 25 percent of students surveyed said their schools did a good job helping them find housing, and 61 percent said were never connected with any outside organization while homeless.
Schools are supposed to be safe places, filled with caring adults who have the capacity to not only educate, but to communicate directly and compassionately with children going through anything from a bad day to something as traumatic as losing their home.
Sadly, the majority of liaisons and coordinators are simply too overwhelmed and under-resourced. To support their students, these caring adults need more support, too—financial, institutional and social.
Seventy-eight percent of liaisons in the report said they lack the necessary funding to support their students; 57 percent pointed to a lack of time, staff and resources; and 36 percent said a lack of community awareness was a problem.
There’s not a lot that the average person reading this can do about the lack of funding or resources, but there is something anyone and everyone can do about community awareness.
Be Aware, and Work Together
I can’t think of a better place than schools to begin dismantling the stigma of homelessness and supporting the healing process. And yet, I know that homelessness is not an issue that can be solved by schools alone. Community organizations and individuals need to rally around their educators and be just as involved—if not more—in helping homeless students cope and thrive.
As one coordinator said: “I want to see a breakdown of some of the silos that we have in the services to these families… the domestic violence people sometimes stay in their little corner, and the early childhood people stay in their little corner, higher ed people are working in their little spot, housing people are in another one. If we could come up with some way where all these services were working together, I think it would really ease some burden on families in accessing what they need.”
Let Students Know About the Support that Does Exist
The report made it clear that liaisons and coordinators need more funding and more resources to help homeless students. But the students interviewed also made it clear that, even when the resources are available, they don’t always know about them.
There should be a push to have simple yet clear documents about potential resources and opportunities in school administrative offices, beginning-, middle-, and end-of-year student information packets, as well in the hotels and motels where these young people live.
As I learned from experience, hopelessness and helplessness are two feelings fueled by lack of information. When you give homeless students information about the help that is out there, you also give them hope.
Making a Home Out of People
As a nation striving to reach a 90 percent on-time graduation rate by 2020, it’s time we offer stability to our youth from every angle possible. The best place to start is with people—teachers, mentors, caring adults, members of every part of the community—who can make a bigger difference than they might imagine.
The poet Warsan Shire once said, “You can’t make homes out of people.” But I’d like to argue that you can, and that sometimes you have to.
The caring adults in my life, my mentors, teachers, coworkers and friends, have been home for me. At times, they were the only ones who could make the thousand-pound weight of homelessness just a little easier to carry. The stability they offer is priceless.