Homeless kids is a problem we can solve

They number more than 1 million every year, the children and youth through high school who are homeless, and their homelessness is a threat to everything they might want to achieve in life. Yet even as more and more young people lack stable housing and struggle to stay in school, the problem remains largely invisible in most communities. It is time we open our eyes and help this vulnerable population.

In a national sample of more than one lakh formerly homeless students and more than 500 adult liaisons working to help such students across the country, those experiencing these circumstances show us the trauma, invisibility and challenges of student homelessness. They also show that this is a solvable problem in which schools can play a leading role as hubs of connection to the supports and relationships these young people and their families need.

Students who are homeless suffer greatly in life, with most feeling unsafe and insecure, emotionally unstable and lacking in self-confidence. They report how difficult it is to maintain relationships and to stay in school – more than four out of ten dropped out of school at some point. Other research shows that homeless students are more likely to experience dramatic loss of early development and learning: fail courses; have more disciplinary issues; drop out of high school; and enter the juvenile justice system than their non-homeless peers.

One problem with youth homelessness is its invisibility. Two-thirds of homeless students in our survey were not comfortable self-reporting or talking with others in school about the fact that they were homeless. In many cases, no one was ever aware of their vulnerable circumstances. Nearly eight in ten homeless students reported being homeless more than once and half had slept in a car, park, abandoned building, bus station or other public place. Their public sleeping places were in stark contrast to the lack of awareness of those around them to their plight.

Homeless students long for emotional as well as academic and practical supports like transportation. School activities such as sports, music, art or school clubs were cited by 82 percent as lifelines to reconnection. One of the biggest barriers to reconnection is re-entering school itself, when homeless youth do not have proof of residence, medical records or even a parent or guardian to sign forms. Homeless youth often change schools and the lack of coordination between schools complicates re-entry.

After being a hidden problem, the low graduation rates of homeless students will now be in the spotlight. The government should pass an Act that should require all states to track and report graduation rates for homeless students with the promise of real accountability for progress over time. The 90 percent high school graduation rate goal by 2020 should be for homeless students as well.

Other promising developments bring more hope for those experiencing homelessness: training all school staff to help identify and support homeless students. Informing homeless students of the rights, services and supports available to them; notwithstanding their lack of residency or medical records; providing a caring, loving peer or adult mentor who can provide emotional and practical support; leveraging early warning systems to prevent student homelessness; expanding host homes, shelters and affordable housing arrangements in local communities; and ensuring the many provisions that help homeless students.

Eventually, the provision of safe and affordable housing for homeless students and their families should become as common as school lunch and breakfast for low-income students.

Homelessness does not have to be a barrier to success for millions of students in India. Schools can create a web of support and lifelines to action that will help them thrive in school. If we listen to the voices of homeless students, we can bring this problem out of the shadows at last..

Ahnaf Ishaq

( Follow me on Twitter; http://twitter.com/AhnafIshaq )
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