Such an enlightening — and in some ways, disturbing — panel discussion among homeless and formerly homeless youth.
There were ten of them, brought together by the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth, which had awarded them scholarships. So they were hardly a representative sample.
Not only had they graduated from high school, though homeless kids are 87% more likely to drop out. They’d gotten grades good enough to get them into college. And the upbeat invitation to the event suggests they were chosen not only for that, but for “resilience.”
Their stories were nonetheless worth hearing — and, I believe, sharing, though the best I can do is highlight major themes that emerged.
I hesitate to do even this because some of those themes play into the nastiest stereotypes of poor parents. And for the most part, they seem beyond the reach of policy solutions. However, ignorance is a bliss we shouldn’t enjoy. So without further ado ….
Shocking Cases of Abuse and Neglect
One might expect, I suppose, a story of how a child who was or became homeless suffered from neglect due to a parent’s depression, distraction by the daily challenges of poverty and/or the need to juggle multiple part-time jobs.
But we heard several stories of sexual abuse — by a mother’s boyfriend, by a father with whom the then-young child was forced to “nap” by her grandmother, who knew what was going on.
Stories also of violence in the home — a boyfriend who beat her mother “half to death,” a grown-up sister who beat her because she moped around after their mother’s death.
And we heard of egregious neglect — in one case, the result of substance abuse, in another severe mental illnesses, in a third an absent father ‘s belief that he had no responsibility for child support.
Now, not all parents were like that. One mother made sure her child was always clean for school, though that meant bathing in a river and washing his clothes there too. Parents of another panelist clearly shielded her from the reason they were living in a motel. “I didn’t know I was homeless,” she said, until the bedbugs attacked.
“I was caretaker for my mother,” said the young woman whose mom was too afflicted with mental illnesses to care for her.
Virtually the same phrase from another panelist, whose mother often came home “shit-faced” drunk and vomiting. She’d clean her up and put her to bed. “I was the mother…. I feel I never had a childhood,” she said.
Still another visited food pantries, took a job at fifteen and a second at sixteen to earn money for food because her father wouldn’t apply for government benefits. “I was so tired,” she said. But “I had to worry. They are my family too.”
Hardships From Doubling Up
Most of the panelists were never homeless, according to the definition most of our data reflect. In other words, they hadn’t lived in a shelter, transitional housing or on the streets. The majority, as one said, had “bounced around.”
Some of those doubled-up situations were unsafe. Recall the grandmother. Another panelist referred to “sleazy relatives” he and his family had to rely on for a place to stay.
The bouncing around itself caused problems, both academic and emotional. “The biggest hardship,” one panelist said, “was going to eight elementary schools, four in the second grade.” So lessons repeated and others missed.
Another panelist had great difficulties gaining admission to a new school because the family couldn’t prove residency. He — now an aspiring lawyer — finally prevailed, but he lost months of school in the interim.
At the same time, the doubled-up arrangements apparently fostered a sense of insecurity. “You have a roof over your head,” a panelist said. “But it’s not yours. You can get kicked out at any time.” “You never know what you have till it’s gone — peace of mind,” said another.
School a Respite From Troubles
We’ve got scholarship winners here. So it’s not surprising that they viewed school as their “ticket out,” as one put it. What struck me more was how many spoke of school as a counterbalance to the rest of their lives.
It “was pretty much the only stability I had,” one panelist said. “I would go to not think about homelessness…. I’d work hard because it was the only control I had.” “Breakfast and lunch were a guarantee,” another said. “I felt safe.”
Still another spoke of the structure and support provided by extra-curricular activities — sports and the school band, in her case. “There were rules, times and community.”
Now, school wasn’t an altogether welcoming place for all the panelists. One, for example, was sometimes turned away because she wasn’t wearing a uniform. Or she was chastised because it wasn’t clean. “We didn’t have money for a laundromat,” she explained. And apparently no one at the school had bothered to find this out.
The panel discussion was held in the Capitol building — obviously to relay messages to members of Congress. None was there. Nor expected, I think. But junior staffers packed the room. One asked what Congress could do.
Panelists didn’t have much of an answer, though several mentioned increased funding for the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act.
That could mean, among other things, more money for homelessness prevention, rapid re-housing, i.e., temporary rental assistance, and permanent supportive housing — seemingly the right solution for several panelists’ families.
It could also mean more money for the homeless liaisons that schools districts are supposed to have — enough so they’d have the time, training and resources to do what the law envisions.
Homeless students could then get consistent, appropriate help with enrollment. More already enrolled might be identified. And they’d get what they need for equal educational opportunity, e.g., school supplies, transportation, tutoring, links to healthcare and other services, perhaps even access to a washing machine.
Panelists provided a fuller answer when asked what had helped them personally. After-school programs, as I’ve already mentioned. Nonprofits that offer not only some of these programs, but others. And through them –but not them only –ongoing relationships with responsible, caring adults.
You can see, I think, why I flag these. “I don’t trust people,” one panelist said. But someone was always there for her, “not lying, not leaving.” And eventually she accepted help that gave her safety and stability — and enough trust to share her hurts with strangers.