Most children in the United States spend their school days dreaming of their next birthday party or worrying whether they’re popular enough. Not America’s homeless youth.
Students like Jamie Talley, who first became homeless at age 2, are thinking about how the weather will affect their sleep and how to silence their growling stomachs during a test.
“I was pushed out of the world and left to survive on my own,” Talley said in a scholarship essay quoted by the Washington Post. “I had given up on the possibilities for me to become somebody.”
Fortunately, Talley had a teacher who helped her get Medicaid and pushed her to focus on her education.
But most homeless students don’t feel supported at school. They feel that their schools simply don’t have the funding, time, staff, community awareness, or resources to help, and that’s the way it’s always going to be. This feeling of invisibility continues to disconnect citizens with consistent housing from those without.
There are more than 1.3 million homeless students in the U.S., according to a new report by Civic Enterprises and Hart Research Associates. Seventy-eight percent of homeless youth surveyed in the study have experienced homelessness more than once in their lives.
Why are so many of us disconnected from this crisis?
Many homeless students say they’re uncomfortable talking with their schools about their housing situation and the challenges that impact their ability to learn. Additionally, 94 percent of those surveyed stay with different people on an inconsistent basis, adding to the ambiguity that makes recognizing homelessness more difficult.
But it’s not like homelessness is a new phenomenon.
Since the Homeless Services Reform Act of 2003, experts and politicians in D.C. have repeatedly considered legislation to combat the issue. But they haven’t taken substantive action.
With roughly 490 unaccompanied youth, including 330 designated as homeless youth, filling the streets of America’s capital, the question is: What are we going to do about it?
The CEHRA report’s recommendations include focusing on outreach efforts, increased resources for homeless students, and developing national and local goals around increasing graduation rates.
These could be applied to any community in the country. We actually already have the backbone in place to combat the epidemic of youth homelessness across the nation.
Proper implementation of the Every Child Succeeds Act, signed into effect in December 2015, could help alleviate the current hurdles that make homeless students 78 percent more likely to drop out—like proof-of-residency requirements and the loss of records and credits when kids transfer schools.
These bureaucratic barriers have left homeless students scared to talk openly with their mentors and teachers about their situations.
The Department of Education must lead the fight for improved oversight standards, increased mentorship programs, and the enforcement of regulations that ensure students are provided with a fair and valuable education.
But improving school life for homeless students isn’t a cure-all. Increasing affordable housing is also key, especially in so-called “up-and-coming” city neighborhoods where houses stand boarded up next to luxury apartments.
Pushing low-income housing to the outskirts or into areas without modern conveniences is unjust. Instead, cities can redevelop already existing structures with sustainable green infrastructure. They can also take a note from California legislators, who proposed spending nearly $2 billion to create housing opportunities for their mentally ill homeless population.
Although addressing rising homelessness throughout the nation will require legislative change from the top, setting community goals and educating citizens about the realities of homelessness can help combat the sentiment of invisibility that plagues homeless students.
This way, when we pass a homeless person on the street, we’ll remember that person has a name, an identity, a passion, a story, and — most importantly—that they deserve fundamental rights and respect just like everyone else.