The early February sun hangs over a row of houses in Elizabeth, NJ, outside the home of Simeria Dewalt, on Friday, February 5, 2022.Jose A. Alvarado Jr. of NPR hide title
Jose A. Alvarado Jr. of NPR
Dominique Marshall has changed a lot in her youth. She called many different places "home" for short periods of time when she was 17 years old. She learned at a young age that the public school staff and contacts she grew up with were not trained enough to recognize homeless students.
"They didn't identify me at the school I went to, so I didn't qualify for a lot of services until I went to the shelter," says Marshall, 23. "Even then, the Philadelphia contact didn't really talk about what was going on."
OLei McKinney-Ventorequires each school district to designate a contact that identifies homeless students to help them receive needed services. Schools must immediately enroll homeless children, even if they do not have the typical documentation. Students also receive a school uniform, if they use it, and a shuttle service.
Marshall had to defend herself. She stayed at the shelter for almost a month through the Runaway and Homeless Youth Program, a short-term, transitional residential program, but soon after that she ended up couchsurfing again at the homes of friends and family. It became difficult to find a job, and housing subsidies were unattainable. The 23-year-old eventually had to drop out of college.
"I've also dealt with my own struggles — trauma as a child, as an adult, and as a homeless person," Marshall says. "A lot of times people look at the homeless as if they're just on the street, but it looks very different to everyone."
Myshelle Bey was kicked out of her grandmother's house when she became pregnant with their child at the age of 18 and started staying at other people's houses.Kayana Szymczak par NPR hide title
Kayana Szymczak par NPR
Finding the hidden homeless
Barbara Duffield, executive director of SchoolHouse Connection, a national nonprofit dedicated to overcoming homelessness through education, says identifying homeless children and youth is a challenge. Hidden homelessness is one of many reasons. These are people who temporarily stay in someone's house and do not receive support.
"Most homeless families and young people are not in shelters, they are not on the streets, they are moving from place to place," says Duffield. "Identification is very important because if we don't know who is homeless, we can't guarantee they have the resources they need."
Darla Bardine, executive director of the National Youth Network, says it also makes it difficult to help this population because there is no single federal definition or eligibility requirement when it comes to homelessness.
She says the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has the narrowest definition of any federal agency. It only includes people living in shelters, transitional housing, or on the streets or other open spaces.
This doesn't include people who couch surf or pay to stay in motels, for example. So someone like Marshall, who spent most of his youth moving around, wouldn't be eligible for housing assistance, but would be eligible for Department of Education programs for the homeless.
“The narrowness of the definition and eligibility requirements really excludes many children, youth and families who are experiencing homelessness,” says Bardine. "It's very focused on single adults who are chronically homeless."
legislationintroducedin the US House of Representatives would change HUD's definition of homelessness to align with that of other federal agencies so that more children, youth and families can access housing assistance. This would also lead to more accurate data.
The HUD setting puts many vulnerable people at greater risk. In 2019-2020, schools identified 1.28 million homeless students. Meanwhile, HUD identified 106,364 children under the age of 18 and 45,243 young adults between the ages of 18 and 24. The HUD number is considered the official homeless number. Bardine says that's what Congress uses to make decisions about funding and regulating homelessness policy in the United States.
Marshall's brother is on the autism spectrum, which makes it difficult for him to access services on his own. He was staying with a family member when Marshall had to help him find a shelter so he could get housing assistance.
"He ended up staying in an adult shelter and was about to turn 19 at the time," says Marshall. "He was with people twice his age and had to stay there one night to qualify."
Myshelle Bey spent most of her youth homeless. She had to leave school behind.Kayana Szymczak par NPR hide title
Kayana Szymczak par NPR
Myshelle Bey spent most of her youth homeless. She had to leave school behind.
Kayana Szymczak par NPR
School is not always a priority
Kedric Sledge, a school social worker with Fulton County Schools in Atlanta and a member of the Nationalstand up for the children, a nonprofit that addresses the youth homelessness crisis, says one of the biggest obstacles it sees for homeless students is that school is not their top priority. Students miss two or three days a week because they are more focused on earning.
"They want to work first, and school often comes second," says Sledge. "They just want those basic needs met - getting money for hotels, putting food on the table, toiletries and things like that."
Myshelle Bey spent most of her youth homeless. She was thrown out of her grandmother's house when she became pregnant with a son at the age of 18 and started living in other people's houses. She had to leave school behind.
"I was working all the time, and at one point I had a night job, a day job, and I was going to school," Bey says. "And I tried to make sure I was always busy and not trying to focus on the situation I was going through."
The school knew that Myshelle Bey did not have a stable place to live. She says the school didn't offer many resources. And the grandmother, who struggled with drug addiction, did nothing to help.
"It was really hard to deal with school, and the teachers didn't understand, they said 'you should be in school,'" says Bey. She is located in Boston.
She dropped out of high school and gave custody of the child to her mother.
Simeria Dewalt is a mother of four children. Dewalt's two oldest children were struggling academically when they moved into the shelter.Jose A. Alvarado Jr. of NPR hide title
Jose A. Alvarado Jr. of NPR
Duffield says about 68% of students who have experienced homelessness will graduate from high school. Others, home to children living in poverty, graduate from high school about 80% of the time.
"We also know that lack of a high school education or GED is the greatest risk factor associated with becoming homeless in adulthood," says Duffield. "Homelessness disrupts education, but education is key to getting out of homelessness."
Bey completed her GED in 2019 and is currently getting her license as a cosmetologist. The 27-year-old hopes to work in a hair salon while earning her associate's degree.
Sledge says he's a proponent of vocational and HVAC training programs that can teach homeless students the skills they need to work in trades or welding. It allows students to learn how to do a job that can help them earn money.
Body of work, a program that provides free education and professional development to young people aged 16 to 24, is one of Sledge's most popular programs.
"They get housing for one of them, and they can choose between a high school diploma or a career when they're in Job Corp," Sledge says. "They get an allowance — maybe about $25 a week — and at least they have shelter, room and board."
The stigma behind homelessness
Many homeless children and youth also struggle to remain undetected by the system because of the underlying stigma of homelessness.
Simeria Dewalt is the mother of four children between the ages of 16 and 24, all in public schools. She says her older children struggled academically when they first moved into the shelter. The shame of not having a home hurt me more.
"They were more afraid of what people would think and what they would hide when they were going in and out of the shelter," says Dewalt. Lives in Elizabeth, N.J.
She says her oldest son started staying at other people's houses when he was 16 to avoid the shelter. And her daughter followed soon after and started living in a group home when she was 14.
“It really means that the school district and school officials have to be sensitive and also very proactive in outreach, not just using the word homeless, for example,” Duffield says.
Schools should train teachers to spot signs of potential homelessness in students, she says. These usually include students who are frequently absent, students who wear the same clothes, students who hoard food, or change behavior such as withdrawing or acting out.
Simeria Dewalt says her oldest son started staying at other people's homes when he was 16 to avoid the shelter they were staying at. Soon after, the daughter started living in a group home at the age of 14.Jose A. Alvarado Jr. of NPR hide title
Jose A. Alvarado Jr. of NPR
Dewalt is a peer recovery specialist at Prevention Links, a nonprofit organization that provides free recovery services for people with substance abuse disorders. As a support specialist, she believes it would be beneficial for schools and shelters to have counseling sessions with homeless students to learn different ways to communicate with other students about their situation. She says that many children, like hers, do not know how to deal with the doubts that their friends may have at school.
She also says having homeless participants come and share a success story can help students understand that homelessness isn't permanent. Dewalt wants homeless students to understand that this is a situation that many people go through and that they can overcome.
"I was suicidal at one point, but I'm here today, so [I know] there can be a point where you feel like you're breaking," Dewalt says. "But if you have someone to talk to who encourages you and lifts you up, that might change."