How did you become homeless?
" My mother died and my father was never in my life. My siblings decided that they did not want to upkeep the family house and everyone went their own way. No one is able to take care of me. They felt that because I was enrolled and had financial aid that I was okay and could not afford to help me because of their own situations."
" I am from Atlanta and I don't know where my mother is. She shows up when she needs something and has never been there for me and my sister. I worked from a young age and my sister is living with her boyfriend and kids and has no room for me. I can go there sometimes, but not to live."
" My mother is on drugs. My sister lives with my father. He lost his job two years ago and they are struggling living on her check. There is nothing there for me. I need to get this degree and try to get a job. "
" My mother and brother go from hotel to hotel. About 6 months ago she lost her job. I am the first one to make it into college in my family and everyone is proud of me and hopeful. I just got a job this week so maybe I'll make enough money to help my mum and save for housing during the summer when I am unable to pay for tuition. "
" My mother is sick and can no longer work. Things are really hard at home and I need help for this semester. I am trying to get a job on campus. "
" I was living with two room-mates, and then one of them did not pay his bill for two months. I covered his share, then we got evicted and I don't have any savings to be able to afford an apartment."
Students experiencing homelessness face numerous barriers to educational success. The overall context of poverty in which homelessness usually occurs brings with it numerous risk factors that may affect a student's education, including poor nutrition, a lack of healthcare, unsafe or overcrowded living conditions, and a general environment of financial strain and lack. Residential instability and the resulting school mobility that often accompanies it also place homeless students at an academic disadvantage. Each time a student changes schools, s/he also changes peer groups, instructors, and oftentimes school curricula.
Additionally, students experiencing homelessness often face specific barriers when attempting to enroll in school, including lacking documentation normally required for enrollment, such as a birth certificate, previous school records, proof of guardianship, proof of residence, or immunization or other health records. Homeless students also may lack the funds to purchase school supplies, school uniforms, or others materials needed to participate completely in school programming. Without a quiet space and adequate materials, homeless students may find it difficult, if not impossible, to complete school assignments.
Couple the previously mentioned challenges with the emotional and mental strain caused by family discord and often the added pressure of needing to work to ensure financial survival, and one can appreciate the persistence and dedication that unaccompanied homeless students must demonstrate in order to succeed in school. Given the complex interaction of challenges and barriers faced by homeless students, it is not surprising that some homeless students never graduate from high school.
Barriers to College Access and Success
The educational barriers faced by homeless students are not limited to kindergarten through high school. High school graduates experiencing homelessness likely will encounter roadblocks should they wish to continue on to higher education.
Many high school graduates in homeless situations have not had anyone to serve as a mentor and role model in the area of education. Few, if any, people in their lives have helped them prepare for college or encouraged them to consider it as a realistic option for their path towards adulthood and financial independence. Despite this, many homeless youth wish to continue on to higher education and set out to take the steps necessary to make this happen. Along the way, they are likely to encounter these and other barriers (Emerson, Duffield, Salazar, & Unrau, 2012):
- lack of support from an adult who has the experience and knowledge needed to provide assistance in the college search and application process;
- difficulty paying fees for Advanced Placement (AP) exams, college entrance exams such as the ACT and SAT, and college applications;
- difficulty completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA); this is particularly true for unaccompanied homeless youth -UHY, who may be unable to access information on their parents' income and assets or get a parent signature; a financial aid package that is insufficient to meet their financial need;
- difficulty paying housing deposits and other expenses that may be due before financial aid funds become available; and
- lack of information about various supports that may be available to them, including college advising from a high school counselor, private scholarships, state-specific opportunities for homeless students, and the Education Training Voucher (ETV) program for foster youth.
Once enrolled in college, students experiencing homelessness often continue to face challenges in reaching college graduation, including (Emerson, Duffield, Salazar, & Unrau, 2012):
- continued lack of support from a helpful, caring adult;
- struggles with mental health issues related to the distress caused by homelessness; and, for UHY, often a history of physical, sexual, or mental abuse;
- insufficient support with developing solid study skills, securing stable housing and reliable transportation, and deciding on a college major or potential career path; and
- difficulty balancing the demands of schoolwork, the need to work to pay bills, and other responsibilities.
Without much-needed support, youth experiencing homelessness may be unable to surmount the barriers and persist through to college graduation, seeing their dreams of a college degree, professional advancement, and financial stability fall by the wayside.
Source: NAEHCY College Access and Success for Students experiencing homelessness toolkit for educators and service providers. Hope rises like a phoenix from the ashes of shattered dreams. ~S.A. Sachs