It’s the eyes that give them away, every time. They look just like every other student . . . until they start to tell their story.
Then, the eyes give them away—eyes that have seen horrors that their owners are too young to process—abuse, neglect, mental illness, addiction. It’s the dark circles under the eyes, a little too dark for a teenager to own. It’s the eyes that betray the instability and uncertainty of homelessness.
November is National Homeless Youth Awareness Month, a cause far too under-publicized. When I say I used to work with homeless and unaccompanied high school students, people have a lot of questions: What happened? How did I not know? How common is this?
According to “America’s Outcasts,” it is quite common, in fact. One in 30 children (2.5 million total) was homeless in 2013, an increase from 1.6 million in 2010. These numbers only include public school students whose administration knew of their circumstances, so it is likely the number is much higher.
These numbers are also significantly higher than those for traditionally homeless individuals. The McKinney Vento Act has a broadened definition of homelessness in order to reduce some of the associated instability and academic losses. The definition includes students who “lack a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence,” are “doubled up” (living with another family due to financial hardship), are living in motels or shelters of any type, are awaiting foster care placement, or are living in a car or other place not designated for human inhabitation. Students who cannot contact their parents or guardians or whose guardians are unable to care for them also qualify as unaccompanied youth (NAEHCY).
The majority of the young women with whom I worked fell under that final category, because they lived with friends, relatives, and sometimes, strangers. Because they were minors (most were 16–17 years old), they couldn’t stay in traditional shelters and, because they lacked parental permission, they couldn’t stay in youth shelters. Most had been abandoned. One’s mother had a terminal illness and lived in a facility, while another’s was sentenced to life in prison. One moved 12 times in a year. For these students, school became their home and their stability.
A significant amount of this stability comes from The McKinney Vento Act, since it goes beyond definitions and attempts to reduce or remove barriers to enrollment and school participation. In accordance with the law, students can stay in their school of origin and schools are required to provide transportation and equitable programming. Some districts go a step farther and offer food and hygiene programs or mentoring programs, but these are not enough.
Nationally, 40 percent of school-aged students coded as homeless show signs of clinical mental illness (homelesschildrenamerica.com), less than half are proficient in math and reading (ECHY) and up to 60 percent of unaccompanied youth report significant abuse at home (NAEHCY). Reports show that only about 67 percent of homeless students graduate on time, compared to 79 percent of students living in poverty, and 88 percent of all students (NAECHY).
Anecdotally, I know that most of the high schoolers work long hours, have little internet access, have no quiet place to study, and some ride the bus for more than an hour each way. Some are suspended for unexcused absences—because they don’t have a parent to call into the school. Other than a busy social worker and me, few had other adults they trusted and relied on for support.
What can you, as a teacher, do to help provide for these students?
- Educate yourself and others:
Read the KDP ProPointers “Teaching Students Who Are Homeless”
America’s Youngest Outcasts (ECHY)
- If you suspect a student might qualify, speak with your social worker or administration.
- Create or advocate for more programming within your district for homeless families and youth. It can be as simple as a sock or soap drive or as big as partnering with a non-profit to provide case management services.
- If you know that a student is coded, give them a little extra kindness. School becomes a home to these students and they may not always be able to come prepared to class. Each one of the students that I worked with that graduated on time often shared that there were 1 or 2 teachers who let them nap during lunch or let them have extra time on homework.
In two school years, I was lucky enough to have close relationships with 13 different young women in two school districts in Indianapolis. All 13 graduated and 9 are attending college. Three earned full rides and two are majoring in social work because they want to make a difference like I did for them. Maybe one of your students will become a teacher because you went the extra mile for them.
Melissa Chrisman is the Southeast Regional Chapter Coordinator for Kappa Delta Pi. Prior to joining KDP, she worked as an intensive case manager for high school students who qualified as homeless in Indianapolis.