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Opinion

I Was a Homeless Student and School Helped Me Find My Way Home

Jamie Warren

I first experienced homelessness with my family, then on my own. I was born to a single mother and a father who was absent because of post-traumatic stress disorder he developed after the war. Throughout my childhood, my mother, two sisters and I moved from home to home, sometimes not having one at all.

I changed schools so often that my teachers couldn’t test me and begin instruction before I left again. I rarely made friends because I never had enough time to get to know them. When I was 16, my mother finally settled with a man who had no desire to be a father. I became an unaccompanied youth—a minor who is homeless without a “present” guardian—and had to support myself financially.

Working a full-time job and trying to function as a “normal” student sometimes felt impossible. I often fell asleep in my first period class, causing my teachers—unaware of my situation—much frustration. On multiple occasions, they reprimanded me in front of my classmates for being “irresponsible.”

That changed when I broke my arm as a junior in high school. Since I was a minor, I couldn’t sign for my own medical care, and I spent six weeks in a splint that the ER doctor only intended for me to wear for a week before it was casted. In the end, it exposed my secret to my teachers—and then everything changed for me.

A Place I Felt Supported

Despite all the problems homelessness caused for me at school, it was still a place I could feel supported.

More than other adults in my life, teachers presented me with a reason to smile or an opportunity to be something more. I remember crying in my teacher’s office because school and a full-time job were too much to handle, and graduation seemed like a fantasy.

According to a recent report, Hidden in Plain Sight, students experiencing homelessness are 87 percent more likely to drop out. This exacerbates the existing issue, as a lack of a high school diploma or GED is the top risk factor for young adult homelessness, making them 4.5 times more likely to experience it.

But to my teacher Mrs. Roberts, that was not an option.

Life is not easy, she taught me, but the only way to make it easier is to have an education. She spent day after day building my confidence and guiding me to a successful path. She also introduced me to a woman who became a mentor and guided me in the ways that she could not.

As Center for Promise research shows, sometimes the most important thing an adult can do for young people is introduce them to other caring adults, which together form a broader web of support.

Ultimately, Mrs. Roberts showed me that it was indeed possible to change my future in a constructive way. I did not have to fall into the same pattern as my family.

People often ask me, “Why are you going to school to teach—don’t you know you could make so much more money in a different field?”

My response to that question is pretty simple: Education has the power to change one’s entire life. Education is a major reason for my success, and one day I will change a student’s life with education.

This is why the new Education Leads Home campaign, the only national campaign of its kind focused solely on meeting the educational needs of homeless students, is so critical to helping students get on the other side of homelessness. Homelessness is more than just a housing problem, and addressing it requires different services coming together.

Housing agencies, health and mental health care, child care and employment training and opportunities and legal services can work together with and through the public school system to create stability and supports.

But before we can help more agencies fight this problem, more people have to be aware of it.

Homeless Youth Exist “In Every State and Every District”

When asked what schools can do to better identify and track homeless students, my answer is simple: awareness. Homeless students and unaccompanied youth exist in every state and every district. Nationwide, there are currently 1.3 million homeless students and many more who are unseen and unheard.

There is hope that more people will become aware with the passing of the Every Student Succeeds Act.

This year marks the first time that all states are required to track graduation rates for homeless students to meet ESSA standards. Stronger protections are in place to identify these students and to meet their unique needs. Similar policies are newly in place in early care and education programs, as well as higher education.

However, the work cannot stop there. Educators need practical support, evidence-based practices and technical assistance to implement these policies and make sure they benefit children and youth.

Furthermore, teachers are not the only adults who have a part to play. As a society, we must all help remove the stigma and fear that prevent homeless students from turning to adults for help. If students are never identified as homeless, they remain hidden within the school system with little, if any, access to the resources and support they need.

Teachers and schools are often the home that many homeless students rely on. They saved my life. It’s time to take a closer look at the gaps in our system so we can provide more homeless students with the support they need to reach their full potential.

This story originally appeared on Education Post and has been posted here with permission.