Young people who have experienced homelessness have tremendous strength. They also have terrific ideas.
Hoping to learn from those who persevered through the challenges of student homelessness, Schoolhouse Washington recently sat down with several members of Youth Advocates Ending Homelessness (YAEH), a program of The Mockingbird Society, a Seattle-based nonprofit. We listened as they shared their perspectives about what types of support can make the most difference in the lives of students experiencing homelessness. We also solicited their advice to help us improve a school-based program model we currently are developing.
Schoolhouse Washington wants young people to inform and influence the direction of our grantmaking strategies. That way, our investments will target programs that have a high level of relevance and a greater likelihood for success.
At the meeting, we asked the young people to share their thoughts on data taken from the Hidden in Plain Sight report on homeless students in America’s public schools. The data addresses the impacts of homelessness on the lives of young people and their abilities to stay and be successful in school.
Perspectives of the YAEH members varied based on individual experience – an interesting point, in and of itself – but most agreed they had more difficulty doing well in school vs. staying enrolled. One YAEH member said transportation challenges getting to and from school, aggravated by her homelessness, prevented her from participating in extra-curricular activities that would have improved her chances for academic success.
The young people also considered data that compared the importance of tangible supports to emotional supports. Tangible supports are specific tools a student needs to do well in school, such as transportation, supplies and tutoring. Emotional supports are defined as having an overall sense of safety and stability. Perspectives again varied, but most YAEH members agreed that emotional supports were more important to them.
“Overall, the data tells a story of a bunch of functional people just trying to survive,” one YAEH member said.
We also asked the group to weigh in on what it would take for in-school supports to meet the needs of students experiencing homelessness. YAEH members offered several ideas:
- Make sure that staff assigned to help the students have small caseloads in order to have time to build meaningful relationships with them.
- Make sure staff possess extensive knowledge of resources available in the community.
- Service plans should be flexible and individualized because every student has different needs.
- Publicize the existence of resources to students so they can self-refer.
- Inform all school personnel – teachers, counselors, support staff – about the available programming so they can act as liaisons and refer students.
Schoolhouse Washington will use the young people’s ideas to instruct our future work. We hope to continue our dialogue with the YAEH members and other young people who have experienced student homelessness. Students experiencing homelessness know what types of support they want and need. They also know what’s missing.
Schoolhouse Washington thanks the following YAEH members who shared their insights with us: O’Kesha B., Tatyana Barron, Angel Gardner, Terry Jackson, Kirei Mei Johnson, Azia Ruff, James Sheard and Jamie Thoburn.