I Believe in Human Rights: Youth Homelessness and Education

For two years in a row, I have been honored to speak with the recipients of the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth’s LeTendre Education Fund Scholarship (NAEHCY/LeTendre). The recipients are undergraduates who have demonstrated an incredible commitment to education during their experience of homelessness.

These young people – typically in college by the time I’ve met them – are among the most courageous students I have ever met. Their stories are heartbreaking, yet hopeful at the same time. This year, they shared their experiences of surviving domestic violence, helping their parents and younger siblings gain access to food and shelter, dealing with constant stress and worry, working through high school, and getting by without much sleep. For many of them, these experiences began early in their lives and came full force during middle school.  

And yet, these students fought, and still fight, to take full advantage of every opportunity that crosses their paths – be it community service, school athletics, extracurricular activities, and Honor Society. I’m not sure I’ve ever met a more focused, and more dedicated group of people, and I am humbled that they continue to reach for a brighter future in the face of so many obstacles.

Yet, the sobering truth is this – homelessness is no obstacle that any child should have to face. While I’m awed by the strength and persistence of the human spirit – especially in our young people – I am a firm believer that the true measure of a society’s greatness is in its treatment of our most vulnerable people.  The stories of the 13 NAEHCY/LeTendre undergraduates are inspiring, and yet, even they continue to struggle for the basic necessities of life – including shelter and food – and they are the exception among homeless youth, not the norm.  There are far too many homeless youth who are left behind and cannot find the strength or resources to face another day without the basic necessities which leaves them with little, if any, hope.

We must do better.

The Department provides about $60 million per year to support the education of homeless youth, from kindergarten through grade 12.  These funds are vital to supporting State and local efforts to keep these highly mobile youth in their school of origin -- minimizing the disruption that sudden or chronic homelessness may cause to their academic careers and community supports.  However, these dollars are thinly stretched and, over the past few years, school districts have reported more and more students in need of stable housing and basic necessities.

During the 2011 – 2012 school year, school districts reported 1,166,436 homeless youth – a 10 percent increase over the previous year. Seventy-five percent of these youth are “doubled-up” – that is, they are residing temporarily with other people, with or without their parents.  The remaining 25 percent stay in shelters, motels, or are completely unsheltered.  Too many of them are left wandering.

To give homeless youth the best possible chance to succeed, it is critical that we provide them with high-quality education services, wherever they go, and maintain strong partnerships between local education agencies and housing authorities.   However, after meeting with the NAEHCY/LeTendre recipients, I strongly believe that we must to do more to prevent youth homelessness in the first place and, for those students who become homeless, rapid rehousing must become our first priority.  What we offer to our children tells them what it is that we value.  By prioritizing the needs of homeless youth, we tell them that we believe in them and are willing to be advocates on this challenging pathway called life.