Barriers to Education Due to Homelessness in America: Students Message to Legislators
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13 students from across the country sat in chairs in a semicircle facing the audience. The briefing was held to give policy and lawmakers an insight into the intersection of education and homelessness. The discussion was moderated by Barbara Dexter, education liaison for Anchorage School District in Alaska.
“We are here to spend the majority of today’s briefing listening. Listening to students who’ve experienced many of these issues whose dedication and whose resilience will inspire and inform. Their words should add urgency, insight, and direction to stakeholders in homelessness and education,” said Barbara Duffield the Executive Director of SchoolHouse Connection to begin the briefing held in the Senate Hart Building in Washington, DC.
Students shared how their families became homeless with reasons ranging from parents loss of income, parents battling addiction, being “kicked out” of the house by a parent, or moving to the U.S. from a place of war without people able to support them. Some students were also unaccompanied homeless youth.
Once homeless, many of the students stayed with other people, lived in motels, cars, or shelters and moved at least more than 5 times during their childhood.[Tweet “Students who experienced #homelessness moved at least 5 times during their childhood.”]
“I had to choose between doing my homework and eating lunch…You shouldn’t put someone’s basic needs, behind a couple of math problems,” said Hannah, a 20, Virginia Commonwealth University.
Homelessness Creates Barriers to Being Successful in Grades K-12:
- Transportation: Students expressed a struggle with having adequate transportation to school mainly due to living too far away and having no access to a car or public transportation.
- Language: A few of the students had to overcome a language barrier to be able to be successful in school and “catch up” to the education level of their peers. This was very common for the students who came to America from other countries.
- Caregiving: In order for a parent to work, some students stayed home to watch siblings.
- Healthcare: Being part of a family without health care can result in taking a longer time to get well. When a student becomes sick from unsuitable living conditions, they would miss school for days or even weeks.
- Technology: Access to technology was a common problem the students discussed stating that lack of wi-fi and/or computer access made it difficult to complete assignments that required technology. For some, a public library was too far to get to or public places with free wi-fi closed after a certain time. One student only had access to a family flip phone.
“Being an impoverished student, I didn’t have access to wi-fi. When you’re not able to actually fulfill your assignments and actually complete this work that you’re given, it’s really hard to succeed. I’ve never had trouble finding paper or pencils, those were always provided to me. I’ve always had issues with wi-fi and the Internet portion of it,” said Asher, 21, University of Arkansas-Fort Smith.
These resilient students were able to take advantage of a variety of programs during their K-12 education to help them apply and enroll into college. They reminded us how taking the time to pay attention to a student in need and reaching out could make a drastic difference in the life of a child.
Once someone invested in their future and helped them see the importance of education, they were determined to succeed.One student expressed that his aunt didn’t know how to read or write but told him he needed to gain those skills.
“She always tells us to go to school [and get] an education to have a better life and future. I took that advice, and I’m still taking it now,” said Greg, 21, Marshalltown Community College from Liberia.
Examples of Support in K-12:
- ESOL or English for Speakers of Other Languages: As mentioned above, speaking English was vital to being able to succeed. One student mentioned this program as very helpful to bridge that gap.
- School Counselors: A student was able to gain a scholarship after a school counselor informed her of the application and helped her complete it. A couple mentioned school counselors that opened their homes to help.
- At-risk Coordinator: Students may fear speaking up about their living situation or not know who to go to for help. One student said that after having no other place to turn, she talked to the coordinator who placed her in a runaway shelter.
- AVID or Advancement Via Individual Determination: A couple students mentioned this as an important part of their success. Students received tutoring and peer support.
“It was my at-risk coordinator at my high school. She sent me to this homeless shelter, and I am very grateful. She gave me a place to stay and after that everything went better. Even if I didn’t have a place, I knew I had someone to talk to,” said Mirka, 20, University of Texas
These courageous students believed that they didn’t have to stop with graduating from high school and are now pursuing their college degree. However, they still continue to face challenges as they work, attend school, and for some, support their families.
“I often times wouldn’t have enough money to pay for both schooling and food. That impacted me because, without food, I wasn’t able to focus,” said Dakota, 21, North Seattle Community College
Homelessness Creates Barriers to Being Successful in College
- Food: When students are depending on themselves to pay for their education, they are often faced with a dilemma: pay for class or eat? Students expressed working to have money, which contributes to tuition, housing, etc. but the more they work, the fewer government benefits they receive.
- Housing: Students may be required to stay on campus during their freshman year but face complications during the seasonal breaks when the campus is shut down. This can present a struggle to students who may not have a home to go to during the break.
- Credit/Co-signer: An additional barrier students face with housing is the ability to get approved to live in an apartment without credit or a family member who could co-sign.
- Financial Aid: The research is clear that youth experiencing homelessness have to face the struggle of proving their need for financial aid. One barrier mentioned is an ability to provide documentation to verify their homelessness. For some, even having supporters calling the office didn’t get them the aid they needed. They say the officers are not informed on how to handle homeless students. This is a difficult area to confront without support with the end result of students having to pay for their tuition out-of-pocket.
- Time Management: Many of the students are working full-time, attending school, and taking care of family. This presents many struggles with managing time such as having to miss class in order to take care of a family member.
- Healthcare: Again, access to healthcare remains an issue for students who can’t afford it or whose Medicaid has run out at the age of 19. For some, they use what the college can offer on campus and have to use the money to pay for something as simple as eyeglasses.
“For me, the first year I was in college, I stayed in campus dorms. One of the biggest issues was the dorms close in winter and summer breaks and all other people go to their homes because they live nearby but for me, I was like, okay now what? I just waited until someone invited me to their house to stay for the summer. This last summer, I stayed in four different houses,” said Mirka.
Overall, the students shared their stories to show those with the ability to create policies and legislation in relation to homelessness what they have experienced. It is important to remember the impacts changes, or cuts in budgets can directly have on children.
The students also want to remove the stigma and expand how homelessness is defined. Major takeaways from this briefing are making sure students are fully aware of the programs available to support them, making sure they know a trusted adult in a school to speak to about their living situations, and how one person can be the support they need to accomplish their goals.
“Not all homeless individuals actually sleep on the streets or don’t have no initiative in advancing their academics or advancing their lives for that matter. They’re’ not just in a stupor where they can’t get out. They have to struggle to crawl their way out, and they need help with getting out of that situation,” said Asher.
This discussion was held a year after the release of Hidden in Plain Sight, a report on the educational experiences of students experiencing homelessness in public schools released by America’s Promise Alliance one of the event sponsors.
Recent research was shared with the attendees on the Education and Well-being of Children and Youth Experience Homelessness including the following:
- Homeless teens consider suicide more often and are three times more likely to attempt suicide than housed teens.
- Nearly one in four homeless teens has been forced into unwanted sexual activity by someone they are dating, three times higher than the rate for housed teens.
- Youth experiencing homelessness continue to face significant barriers to accessing financial aid for college.
- At least 14 percent of community college students experience homelessness
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