Homeless Students Gain Their Education While Navigating Challenges

By Del Smith

Earlier this summer, SchoolHouse Connection hosted “Voices of Youth: A Discussion on Education, Resilience, Homelessness, and Hope” in partnership with Senators Patty Murray and Lisa Murkowski. The briefing spotlighted the 1.3 million homeless students enrolled in public K-12 or postsecondary education.

“Voices of Youth” featured 11 young adults who were homeless during their school years and who are currently attending (or recently graduated from) college. The discussion covered many important topics, including economic insecurity, family trauma, barriers to college success, and mental health battles. Additionally, panelists recommended policy solutions based on their lived experiences.  

Among many obstacles, students discussed missing school to take care of their younger siblings because their parents had to work. They also highlighted immigrant students’ barriers to accessing benefits and services. Finding housing and securing financial aid are also challenging for homeless young people. Several panelists said it was hard to prove they were homeless when applying for financial aid. Homelessness also affects their ability to get an apartment or car. Even when students are employed and can afford to make payments, lenders want co-signers to be ensured the debt will be repaid. Typically, a co-signer is a parent or legal guardian; however, homeless students are often independent or have parents who won’t co-sign.

Mental health was another important topic. Students said they were often told to forget about past traumas, invalidating their experiences. In comparison to housed teens, homeless teens have dramatically worse health outcomes. In one study, over 20 percent of students living in poverty experienced some form of mental illness within the last year. Further, homeless teens are three times more likely to attempt suicide than their peers. These challenges are compounded by students’ struggle to afford health care. Oftentimes, they have to rely on student health offices, which provide quick fixes rather than long-term solutions.

Students also highlighted the importance of outreach. Low awareness can minimize the impact of even the best policies.  To address that issue, panelists recommended that every college and university have a homeless liaison to help students make the most of their college experience. Typically, liaisons are former homeless students who now work closely with organizations fighting to end student homelessness. 

Current federal policy proposals threaten homeless youths’ access to housing, health care, and other support services. The president’s FY 2018 budget would cut over $200 billion from SNAP and TANF over the next decade. It would also cut $600 billion from Medicaid, another crucial support for youth. These proposals demonstrate a fundamental misunderstanding about homeless youth’s needs as well as our country’s future.

In today’s difficult political landscape, the briefing served as an important reminder to policymakers and advocates: in order to help homeless students, we must first understand their experiences.