Backpack on bench


Four College Students Share What it Was Like to be Homeless—and What they Learned from It

This story is part of the “90 for All” series, which examines the challenges facing traditionally underserved students, particularly low-income and homeless students, English language learners, students of color, and students with disabilities.

The four students quoted in this story come from states across the country, but they all have two things in common: First, they used to be homeless. Second, they found a way to graduate high school and enroll in college anyway.

They recently joined nine of their peers—all participants in SchoolHouse Connection’s Youth Leadership and Scholarship Program—to share their stories on Capitol Hill. The event was livestreamed, which you can view below:

Hannah, 20: “Every child has the potential to rise above their personal circumstances.”

Run. This was the first thought that entered my mind when the neglected motel came into view. I wondered, as a child, why anyone would want to stay in a place like this. It was not until I was a teenager that I realized that these were not places where people spent their vacation, or used as a pit stop overnight; this is where people lived. And now I was one of them.

It was not my first motel or the last. Having so much responsibility and anxiety from my living situation caused me to find solace in education, where I could escape from my chaotic home life. It pushed me to apply myself at school so I could have more opportunities for my future. My ultimate goal is to help others, and the best way I can think of achieving this is by becoming an educator. Every child has the potential to rise above their personal circumstances and be successful in life, but sometimes a teacher needs to show them that.

Class of 2014 On-time (Four-year) High School Graduation Rate by Poverty and Housing Status
Graph taken from Hidden in Plain Sight report.

Asher, 21: “I resorted to sleeping on the roof of a nearby church.”

I started my journey of being chronically homeless my junior year of high school by residing in a car that I solely used for sleeping. The distance from my place of rest to school was approximately three miles, and I used my gift of running to get there, rain or shine.

As winter approached, I was faced with the dilemma of finding more sufficient shelter from the cold and more opportunities for my education…I was able to reside in my biological family’s home for a few weeks before being booted out once again. For a month, I was jobless, hungry, tired, and resorted to sleeping on the roof of a nearby church. The mother of one of my cross-country teammates noticed that my shoes were worn down, which raised her suspicion to the point where she gave me rides. Eventually, I started living with this family.

Since elementary school I have wanted to pursue a career in the medical field so I can help others, whether physically or mentally.

Graph: The Importance of Both Tangible and Emotional Supports for Youth
Graph taken from Hidden in Plain Sight.

Kendall, 20: “My past did not make me bitter; it empowered me.”

My mom made everything tolerable despite the personal cost to her to afford us a somewhat stable and functional childhood. I saw my mom go hungry to make sure we ate, cry at nights worrying about how she would manage, unaware that we saw her pain. She cleaned people’s homes and offices for little to provide for us, and that is where we slept at night.

Dance is my passion and it allows me to escape and express my feelings and emotions without fear or reservation and allows me to be me. And it helped me to cope with being indigent and displaced. My past did not make me bitter; it empowered me and presented an insight to what I desired to be. Dealing with the mental and physical pain I endured paved my path to medicine. I will dedicate time to helping organizations centered on battered women and family shelters, consulting on rehab treatments, support, education and life services.

The message I want to impart is not giving up. Everything takes time. Always remember that, as Jackie Robinson said, “A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives.”

Graph: Discomfort of Youth in Discussing Homelessness at School
Graph taken from Hidden in Plain Sight.

Sasha, 20: “Faith and determination have made me victorious and not a victim.”

As a young child, in my native country of Sierra Leone, war was evident all around me. At the age of eight, I was reunited with my mother for the first time in America. Jobs were not easy for my mother to obtain. Even the job she managed to obtain was not enough to provide for four children. As a result, we were forced from our home.

At the age of ten, I was forced to be an adult. At times, I failed to attend school, because as the oldest child, I had a lot of responsibility. I moved in and out of school twelve times. Instability in school also caused me to lose some of my high school credits, leaving me with no options but to retake those classes.

My lack of childhood education and homelessness has every reason to bring me down, which it once did, physically, psychologically, and emotionally. However, I’ve learned that the past does not define who I am. Despite what I have been through, faith and determination have made me victorious and not a victim. The best I can do to be successful in my life’s journey is to earn a college degree. Going to college will provide me with the means to pursue a career in nursing.

For more information about the June 12 event that will feature a discussion with these students and others, visit Voices of Youth: A Discussion on Education, Resilience, Homelessness, and Hope. Find out more about the lived experiences of homeless youth in the report Hidden in Plain Sight.

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The GradNation State Activation initiative is a collaboration between America’s Promise Alliance and Pearson to increase high school graduation rates by encouraging statewide innovation and collaboration, sharing that knowledge and replicating what works, and developing successful models all states can replicate.

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