The experiences of homeless students are often rendered invisible. Students often hesitate to share that they are homeless due to fear of being stigmatized or bullied. Most teachers do not receive professional development to identify signs of homelessness or to support students dealing with housing instability.
As a result, homeless students too often move through schools without receiving the support needed to overcome the challenges associated with housing, food and other forms of insecurities experienced during homelessness.
In July, the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans hosted a screening of “The Homestretch” as part of its film screening and discussion series (#AfAmEdFilms) to raise awareness of opportunities to support homeless children and youth.
“The Homestretch” chronicles the lives of three youth of color seeking stable housing and employment while also completing high school and pursuing post-secondary success.
The stories of the three youth featured in “The Homestretch” highlight the broader experiences of the 1.3 million homeless children and youth enrolled in U.S. public schools. Roque, an undocumented Latino youth, struggles to complete paperwork necessary for work and school (consider for example the difficulty one may have completing school registration forms that require a home address or telephone number, or obtaining signatures from parents that students are not in contact with). Anthony, a young Black man who has spent his childhood in foster homes, struggles to win custody of his son. Kasey, a Black lesbian, is kicked out of her home by her mother because of her sexual orientation.
Roque, Anthony and Kasey are unaccompanied homeless youth, which means not in the custody of a parent or guardian. Unaccompanied homeless youth are particularly vulnerable, as they are often homeless due to abuse or family neglect and resort to living in unsafe spaces.
For these students it is even more crucial to receive guidance, mentorship and support from educators and service providers as they are more likely to experience barriers to success in school and in life.
It is worth noting that students of color and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and questioning (LGBTQ) youth are disproportionately represented in this subgroup; and LGBTQ youth make up as much as 40 percent of all homeless youth.
LGBTQ youth and youth of color (especially African-American youth) are also overrepresented in the foster care system, facing similar barriers to school success due to high mobility and school instability.
In addition to the stress resulting from housing instability and neglect, homeless and foster care youth are more likely to be exposed to other forms of trauma such as physical and sexual assault, violence and hunger. Family rejection places LGBTQ youth who are homeless or in foster care at an even greater risk for mental health struggles. Homeless and foster care students are also more likely to be chronically absent and experience unplanned school changes. The collusion of these factors can result in significant barriers to achievement and lead to an increased risk of dropping out of school.
Schools as well as faith communities and community-based organizations are in a unique position to identify students who are homeless or in foster care and to connect them to resources and supports needed to meet critical needs.
Here are five ways schools can support homeless and foster care youth.
- Create supportive, affirming and loving environments where students feel safe, nurtured and supported such that homeless students and students in foster care do not fear stigmatization or bullying as a result of disclosing the need for housing stability or assistance.
- School faculty and staff should receive professional development designed to identify signs of housing instability and to support the needs of homeless students and students in foster care (including familiarity with the McKinney-Vento Act and other federal, state and local sources of supports for foster care students and homeless students and families).
- Connect students to in-school and community support services. Coordinate with mental and physical health service providers as well as housing agencies to meet the needs of homeless and foster care children and their families to the greatest extent practicable.
- Provide homeless and foster care youth with the support required to graduate on time with the skills, experiences and credentials required to be successful in college or a career in the global 21st-century labor market.
- Raise awareness and further the conversation by hosting a screening and discussion event where you watch “The Homestretch” and discuss opportunities to better support the needs of homeless and foster care students in your community. Consider also hosting an AfAmTeachIn to center the experiences of students who are homeless and in the child welfare system and provide a platform for them to describe the supports they need to thrive.