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A City Education: How Do We Really Help Homeless Students?

We tend to think of homelessness as only living on street corners, but quite often our children live with crippling instability that can go unnoticed.

Through A City Education, City Year corps members share their experiences working as tutors and mentors in schools in hopes of closing the opportunity gap and ending the dropout crisis.

Homelessness is something that many children experience in varying degrees, some temporarily and some for years at a time. When I was 6-years-old, my mother packed everything that she, my two younger siblings, and I owned and we began a year-long journey of constantly searching for a place to stay. We moved out of our comfortable apartment following the death of my father—my mother had also recently lost her job, and we could no longer afford living there. We spent the next year hopping from house to house.

At first it seemed fun, moving to different cities and getting to know different people—my mother made it seem fun. But as it continued, I became more and more aware of how unstable our life was.

We found stability for a few years only to have it rocked by an injury that my mother acquired on the job, and so we moved again. When that became boring and unfulfilling, we set out to move again, except this time we bounced from motel to motel in search of something new. Under a veil of adventure we lived in constant uncertainty. This inconsistency made me constantly wish for some sort of stability.

Despite all of these circumstances though, I got to graduate from high school with honors and this past May I graduated from college. I often wished that I had had a mentor of some sort in my youth, so now I am serving with City Year Orlando as a tutor at Evans High School, trying to be the mentor that I needed at that age.

My family's uncertainty and insecurity came in bursts for a year or two at a time, but I often had the comfort of knowing that at some point my mother would figure it out. Even when it became more obvious that things would not fully improve, I never experienced the fear of living on my own at a young age, or living without some sort of shelter.

We tend to think of homelessness as only living on street corners or under bridges, but quite often our children live with crippling instability that can go unnoticed.

There are many ways to define homelessness. There are those who find themselves in transitional housing or living in shelters, abandoned buildings or in vehicles, or living on the streets. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services also considers persons who are forced to live with friends or extended family members due to an inability to acquire or maintain housing as homeless persons. Instability is the key factor in defining homelessness—which many youth face every day.

As of June 2013, Florida's Council on Homelessness reports (PDF) that approximately 450,000 households in Florida live around or below thirty percent of the median income of their area. According to the National Center on Family Homelessness' State Report Card on Child Homelessness (PDF), Florida has almost 50,000 homeless youth. They also report (PDF) that 1 in 29 children in Florida are food insecure. How are children supposed to perform well in school and hold high hopes for the future when their most basic needs are not being met?

I almost dropped out of school because of this instability, and I already see that idea rearing its head in some of my students. I recently had a conversation with a student about how he wanted to become a rapper. I asked him how he planned to become one. He said to me, "I'm going to drop out of school," and it seemed as if he had made up his mind entirely on the matter. The more I work with him, the more I realize just how unstable his life has been.

My fellow City Year corps members and I often hear stories like this from our students, and we provide as many resources as we can to help students succeed in the classroom. Schools often have resources for struggling students such as food pantries or an afterschool snacks program, but it is incredibly difficult to address housing concerns. Homeless students often have difficulties getting to school on time and having the supplies necessary to succeed. How can we expect students to have binders, notebooks, and pencils when they do not even have a consistent place to live?

While tutoring can encourage students to be more engaged in their work, it only provides one of the tools necessary to succeed. I have observed that students who lack the resources one needs to survive, like consistent housing, food supply, and a stable family life, cannot focus on school regardless of my efforts. We can provide school supplies to some students, but we cannot supply them to every student that needs them. We can direct students towards possible resources when they are in need, but we cannot guarantee that those resources will be available.

The high school graduation rate for homeless children is less than 25 percent, so this is certainly a crisis. November was National Youth Homelessness Awareness month, but that doesn’t mean we should stop thinking about the reality of youth homelessness in America. We must celebrate the triumphs—like homeless teen Dawn Loggins who earned acceptance to Harvard—of those who have overcome homelessness, try to come together to think of new ways in which we can tackle this problem, and create a better world for our children.

Want to mentor a student from a low income community? Click here to say you'll do it.

Worried child image via Shutterstock

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