By Brighton Haslett
13 formerly homeless youth, ages 19 and 20, gathered in downtown Washington on the morning of June 17th to discuss their experiences with homelessness and their successes in the face of adversity at “Voices of Youth: A Discussion on Resilience, Homelessness, and Hope,” presented by the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth (NAEHCY) in conjunction with the Congressional Homelessness Caucus. The discussion opened with introductions, and a question: How did you become homeless? The answers ranged from destructive fire to drug addicted parents, but each story shared a common thread: “it’s not our fault.” Among the difficulties these teens have overcome, and some that they are still struggling with, are siblings left behind, working multiple jobs, taking care of family members, and striving for excellence in the classroom. Impressively, all 13 are currently enrolled in college. Their majors include Civil Engineering, Pre-Med, Business Administration, Biology, Mathematics, English, Psychology, Anthropology, and Social Work. Succeeding in school was not easy, and several of the teens mentioned specific instances when their homelessness and family life interfered with their success. 19 year-old Tia mentioned needing parent’s signature on a report card, or an offer for 10 points extra credit for a parent’s signature on some other document. For her, this was not possible. More troubling, to receive free and reduced price lunches, a student needs a parent’s signature.
A lack of parental support was not the only hurdle the teens encountered in high school; many have struggled without money for most of their lives, and still do today. Raven, 20, recalls that in high school, financial aid was not available. While the students are scholarship recipients, this money does not cover all of their expenses, and those who live in dorms still struggle to afford housing during Christmas and summer breaks. In college many of the teens pay their own rent and work full time. Several express that this is overwhelming, and that working often interferes with school work, but must take priority for the teens to maintain housing. Heather pointed out “full time working and full time college is almost impossible.” Because of the struggle to make ends meet, homelessness is not a thing of the past.
Despite feeling let down by parents, teachers, and the system itself, the teens want to be successful, and want teens like themselves to receive encouragement. When asked what they wanted people to understand about homelessness, overwhelmingly the response was empathy and encouragement.
NAEHCY, among other organizations, works to educate homeless youth. The McKinney-Vento Homeless Education Assistance Act is a federal law that ensures education for homeless youth. Through education and the assistance of these and similar organizations, we can reduce the number of homeless youth entering the juvenile justice system and work toward long term successes of the kind that these 13 formerly homeless youth have achieved.