The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

These are the faces of America’s growing youth homeless population

Gladys Thompson became homeless at 13, when her family was evicted from their home for the fifth time in three years. (Courtesy Gladys Thompson)
My sisters and I were going hungry. We lived off of ramen noodles for weeks at a time; we didn’t know what my mom did with the EBT money for food. We became fatigued and skinny. During those weeks of living in paranoia, my mom acted like life was dandy, still buying liquor and marijuana just for her boyfriend and herself. I had to put a stop to worrying about my life. I came to a conclusion that the only way that I could be happy and stable is to move on when we got evicted for the 5th time in 3 years. At age 13, I wanted to see what life could give me, even if it meant living like a nomad and bouncing to house to house. … I moved out.
— Gladys Thompson

Gladys Thompson became homeless before she was old enough to drive or hold a job. She remembers begging for food and water, and pleading with friends for a place to sleep. And she is not alone: More than 1.3 million U.S. students were homeless in 2013-2014, twice the number who were homeless before the collapse of the housing market and subsequent recession.

The number of U.S. homeless students has doubled since before the recession

Homeless youth spend more energy surviving than kids who have a stable place to live. They miss more class. They are more likely to struggle academically and less likely to graduate from high school. And according to a report on homeless youth released this week by GradNation — which has led a long-running, national campaign to shrink the high school dropout rate — the majority of homeless students feel as if they cannot even tell anyone at school about their situation.

They feel invisible. Or, as Gladys Thompson put it: “I cried for days and nights. I was so hurt that people would leave me in the streets.”

Now advocates and federal officials are seeking to draw attention to the plight of America’s homeless students, including to what educators can do help, from providing mentors and emotional support to easing homeless children’s transition when they have to change schools.

'Lost in America' follows director Rotimi Rainwater, a former homeless youth, and his team as they travel the country to bring to light the issue of youth homel (Video: Village Entertainment Inc.)

John Bridgeland co-authored the GradNation report after seeing a documentary on homeless youth that opened his eyes to the profound challenges they face.

“I realized, oh my God, we’ve been working on the high school dropout epidemic for more than a decade, and minorities and low-income students and students with disabilities and English language learners — all these pops have been very high on our radar screen,” Bridgeland said. “But homeless students were nowhere.”

The report, which included surveys of homeless youth, found that three-quarters have been homeless more than once in their lives, 42 percent have dropped out of school at some point, and half had slept in a car, park, abandoned building, bus station or other public place. More than half — 62 percent — said their schools did a fair or poor job helping them stay in school, and 58 percent said their schools did not connect them with an outside organization for help with housing or other issues.

Coming of age in a city coming apart

The new federal education law — the Every Student Succeeds Act — may help bring a new focus to the plight of homeless youth. The law requires that the performance and graduation rates of homeless children be reported separately, which advocates hope will spur schools, districts and states to come up with new ways to support them and help them stay on track.

Obama signs new K-12 education law

Education Secretary John King Jr. met with several young people — including Thompson — who experienced homelessness during their K-12 careers, and who beat the odds and are now in college. He wanted to hear what their schools had done well and not so well in terms of helping them overcome the obstacles they faced. He said the conversation will help shape guidance that the department sends to schools this summer, outlining what they can do to better serve children who are in unstable housing or are homeless.

“One young woman said, ‘The fact that I was missing school, and late to school, and not turning in assignments, was a way that I was calling for help, and I wish that someone had intervened,'” King said. It’s not just schools that have a responsibility to ease the lives of homeless youth, he said, so do local housing authorities and transportation departments. But schools can make a difference.

The students who met with King were all winners of scholarships from the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth (NAEHCY), an advocacy group based in Washington, D.C. Three of them spoke to The Washington Post about their lives and the messages they think policymakers need to hear.

Gladys Thompson is now 20 years old and studying to be a nurse practitioner at the Pennsylvania College of Health Sciences. She said that in her experience, teachers need more training in helping students who are dealing with homelessness and extreme poverty.

“You have these new teachers and they’re put in inner-city schools and they don’t know how to deal with the demographics,” Thompson said. They need to better understand how to approach people who have been abused, people who are living in shelters, people who are being tempted by — or are members of — gangs,she said. “We need more training.”

Jamie Talley, 21, said that she first became homeless at age 2, when her mother left an abusive partner. They moved in with her grandparents, and then continued to move: By fifth grade, Talley had attended seven different schools.

When she was 17, she said, a fight led her mother’s then-boyfriend to tell her she had to leave.

“I was pushed out into the world and left to survive on my own,” she wrote in her NAEHCY scholarship essay. She couch-surfed at friends’ houses, then started renting a room and working full-time to pay her bills.

“In the beginning, I had lost hope,” she wrote. “I thought that I had no choice but to forget about school and try to find a job that would enable me to care for myself. I had given up on the possibilities for me to become somebody. Thankfully, there was a special teacher in my life.”

That teacher became her support system, helping her get onto Medicaid and telling her over and over that education was her way out. Talley is now studying to be a teacher at Wayland Baptist University in west Texas.

She said she wants the federal government to make it easier for homeless students who are applying for financial aid to prove that they are homeless and living independently from their parents. Currently, she said, legal emancipation is an expensive process that homeless kids can’t afford.

And she wants teachers in K-12 schools to ask questions, and to be sensitive to the fact that their students might have good reasons for their behavior. She said she had a college-preparation class that required many forms to be signed by parents — forms she could never get signed since she was estranged from her parents and living on her own.

“My teacher would yell at me for not having a parent signature,” she said. “They need to know that not every kid is being lazy. There’s more to it than that. No kid is going to say in the middle of class, ‘I’m sorry, I don’t live with my parents.”

Elio Velazquez, 20, is studying business administration at Marist College in New York, with a concentration in International Business, and a triple minor in global studies, philosophy, and economics.

He said he first became homeless shortly after he was born, when his mother lost her job. He grew up in New York in shelters, and occasionally in apartments where the electricity was often shut off. He did his homework in the stairwells of apartment buildings, where there was light.

His mother never had a job for long. His clothes were often dirty. He was hungry.

In middle school, he moved to New Jersey to live with an aunt. He was behind academically, but he resolved to change that, and he studied hard. He caught up and in 10th grade moved back to New York to live with his mother, but their basement apartment flooded, and when their landlord refused to fix it, they alerted housing authorities — and they were kicked out for living in an illegal rental.

Velazquez spent much of his high school career homeless. He said he wishes college admissions officers would consider overcoming poverty as an accomplishment worthy of notice, like traveling abroad or volunteering for a good cause.

“Kids who are deprived of certain privileges do not have the opportunity to do the same things that other kids are able to do,” he said.

He said his recent visit to the nation’s capital made him more interested in working in public policy, to advocate for his community and others like it.

“It seemed to me that a lot of the people who have the power to make national changes are very unaware of the conditions or the circumstances we live under,” he said.