by Tim Grivois-Shah, Ed.D., Director of Professional Learning and Community Engagement
While finding an exact number is difficult, in 2002, the Department of Justice estimated that there were 1,682,900 homeless and runaway youth living in the United States. As Dr. Eve Rifkin and colleagues found in their study, students who lack stable housing are often among our most resilient learners, and with the right support, schools can ensure that all students have access to what they need to achieve high levels of social, emotional, and academic success. Below are five concrete strategies to support youth living without a permanent safe place to live.
Youth who lack a permanent place to live often struggle to get enough to eat. Students learn when they are fed, and schools that are purposeful and systematic about making sure that no student on campus goes hungry are providing an essential component to any intervention meant to help homeless youth succeed in school.
As principal at Grijalva Elementary School, Megan Chavez and I worked with Pedro Goycolea at Desert Dove Christian Church to convert an empty classroom into a food pantry for our community. We also stocked snacks for classrooms, and made sure that families that qualified for support under McKinney-Vento were quickly enrolled. At City High School, staff stock a mini-fridge with snacks.
Also critical are partnerships with local agencies. For example, Youth on Their Own is a nonprofit agency in Tucson that supports homeless youth in a variety of way, including access to a mini-mall where youth can make their own choices about food and clothing.
Key action: The burden of finding food should not be on our students. However students access your school’s breakfast and lunch programs, find ways to make access to food even easier.
Regardless of where youth who lack housing end up at night, they are living in a precarious situation that prevents them from experiencing the same level of safety as their peers. Youth who lack a permanent place to live may find housing by moving in with relatives, or sleeping on a friend’s couch. A small number of youth find housing through social service agencies, and some youth are completely without housing. All youth who lack stable housing need support in achieving safety.
Educators can support homeless youth by learning about how trauma affects children and youth. Also, school-wide prevention approaches such as Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports create consistent school environments that benefit all youth, especially youth who are homeless and have the most need for our care.
When schools discover that a student either does not have a safe place to live or is in danger of being without a home, taking time to understand each youth’s individual situation is essential to helping student’s make a plan to stay safe. Find out where the youth is living and how long they think they can stay there. Get to know what is expected of them, particularly if the youth lacks a job and a way to pay rent. And, if you suspect that a child is a victim of a crime, notify police and your state’s child protective services.
Key action: Be a person who can listen without judgement and understand each youth’s unique situation. Help where you can.
When youth lack a permanent place to live, they usually lack responsible adults who can make sure that they are ready and out the door for school each day. Many educators assume that getting to school on time should be easy for middle school and high school students. Youth without permanent homes, however, often do not live with responsible adult caregivers who make sure that breakfast is ready and that the bus card is paid up. Even when youth have access to public transportation, a borrowed bike, or can get a ride with a friend, their day-to-day residence might be any number of places. Getting to school, food banks, the free medical clinic, and the computers at the library may involve considerable organization and effort.
Key Action: Because students’ official address may not reflect where they actually sleep, schools can help by knowing where students live and helping them make a plan for how to get to school.
A youth I know shared with me that they often got in trouble for falling asleep in their afternoon classes. “It’s ok, though,” they told me, “They didn’t know I was homeless.” Actually, it’s not ok, because creating a safe place to learn has always been a school’s first and most important job. Students fall asleep in class because they are exhausted, and because something is wrong. Our responsibility is to understand why and to help where we can.
Later in the year, the same youth student was caught with a small amount of marijuana. Understandably, the school acted to keep other students’ safe and suspended the student. Unfortunately, when the student was suspended, they were also kicked out of their house. This led to the student becoming homeless and living in several highly dangerous living situations.
To be effective, schools must be able to hold students accountable for behavior that violates the school’s values. And, to be a school that chooses never to give up in its students, schools must model kindness by at least considering what the unintended consequences of disciplinary decisions might be.
Key Action: Be open to pursuing a restorative approach to addressing unexpected behavior.
Educators began their career because they care. They want to see young people succeed, and they understand how their work helps to achieve social justice and creates a stronger community. Also true—helping students learn and grow is physically and emotionally challenging work in the best of circumstances. Discovering that one of your learners may not have a safe place to live, could be hungry, and might be the victim of abuse has the potential to overwhelm any educator’s capacity to cope with stress. Far from being selfish—Self-care is about preserving the ‘self’ and ensuring that there is a ‘self’ available to do the caring.
This means more than treating yourself on payday or taking a walk. Instead, self-care is about knowing yourself well enough to know 1) what you need to do to be ready to manage tough situations and 2) to be honest with yourself about how a situation may be harming you so that you are clear about what you need to do to repair your heart, mind, and body.
While most conversation in education around self care is about helping individual educators care for themselves effectively, schools can be systematic about self-care by paying attention to mental health of their staff as a community. When staff are overwhelmed, schools can find out why. The data meeting on the data calendar can wait. The professionals caring for the children should not have to.
Key action for educators: Care for yourself diligently and be honest with yourself about how tough situations might affect you.
Key action for school leaders: Teaching is supposed to be fun, satisfying, and joyful work. If your staff look bored, disengaged, and sad, be intentional and transparent about your actions to care for your staff.
What if it works?
Imagine a student coming to your school. They have no safe place to live, are hungry, and frightened. You notice them alone in a classroom, and they look tired and stressed. You say, “Hey, you look like something is wrong. What’s happing?”
You find out that their parents were deported and they now live with a relative who struggles with addiction and anger. Also, the apartment is much further away from school and there are four other people who share the same extra room. The student didn’t eat last night, and got to school just after breakfast ended. When they asked for breakfast anyway, they were told that it was important to be on time. Wait for lunch. Now they’re in a classroom hungry and defeated.
- Take out the granola bar from the snack drawer that’s in every classroom for every student.
- Sit with the youth to call your friend at a local agency that helps youth find safe housing.
- Ask the student if it would help to borrow one of the bikes in the storage closet that a local church has been fixing up for kids at your school
- You let the student know that you love them and that you’ll check in on them as you can
- Finally, you take a deep breath and recognize that your neck is feeling a bit tense after all this work. You decide not to miss your yoga class that night.
You and your school can be the reason that students who have to learn without a safe, permanent place to live succeed. Be concrete in your support, and make sure that you and your school are cared for in the process.
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