Redefining Homelessness: The Struggle for Recognition

The sudden rush of people cramming onto BART is Brittany Jones’s alarm clock every morning. Since the age of 19, Brittany has been uncertain of where she will sleep each night, bouncing between BART, relatives’ and friends’ houses, group homes, and shelters. She is merely one of California’s thousands of homeless people trying to find a quiet place to catch a few hours of sleep each night. In an attempt to create more homes for these people, Governor Jerry Brown recently signed into law bill AB 932. This allows certain cities and counties to bypass hurdles and quickly build shelters for the homeless. He stated that these individuals deserve “decent shelter and a place for dwelling, not abandonment.” However, a place to sleep is just one of the many problems Brittany faces as a homeless student at Laney College in Oakland.

Brittany also has to worry about studying and surviving simultaneously. She constantly questions whether she will be able to afford dinner each night or whether she will be able to maintain her job and keep her grades up at the same time. And Brittany is not alone. A 2017 study showed that about one-third of community college students experience some form of housing insecurity. Additionally, over 200,000 K-12 students in California are homeless, and one in five California State University students does not have access to enough food.

Homeless students feel tremendous pressure to excel in school, as they want to raise their parents, and themselves, out of this position of poverty and insecurity. These students feel motivated to go to college, get a good job, and rise out of homelessness. Those facing food and housing insecurity are more likely to have the goals of updating their job skills or achieving certifications than other students. But, the exhaustion, stress, and hunger make it harder for them to do well. These students are often too tired to go to school, are embarrassed because they had nowhere to shower, or feel ashamed because of their position. Homeless students tend to feel less confident in their academic abilities, but teachers frequently do not understand the situation they are in. As a result, these kids fall further behind. Alison, a 14-year-old Colombian immigrant, goes to school every day yet has difficulty concentrating. Without adequate sleep, she feels, “When you’re that tired it affects your personality. You feel like … not much.”

Many of these homeless students are often not homeless in the conventional sense that they live out on the street. Many younger homeless students live in houses with several other families. Some students, especially college students, are transient or couch surf. Others, like Brittany Jones, are constantly looking for a place to sleep. Brittany will sleep on a friend’s couch or floor when they are offered. The rest of the time, she will sleep on BART or buses. All of these situations restrict the student’s privacy and their ability to get adequate sleep and make it difficult to find a quiet place to concentrate on their studies. Thus, homeless students are far more likely to drop out of school than other students. Sadly, schools neglect to consider students in these situations as homeless.

By not including transient students as part of their homeless population, these schools actively restrict access to necessary help and funding for thousands of students across the state.  Students facing homelessness are also disproportionately people of color and come from poorer families, such as Brittany. Black and Southeast Asian students disproportionately suffer from food and housing insecurity. Many of those affected are also either undocumented immigrants or are the children of immigrants. Homeless children of undocumented parents face additional challenges. Sometimes their parents are working in fields for over 12 hours a day and are unable to take their kids to school or attend parent-teacher meetings. This makes it even more difficult for homeless students to get to school, especially if they are unable to afford public transportation. Additionally, some of their parents did not receive a formal education and cannot speak English. Consequently, they are unable to help their children with their homework. People of color and undocumented families experience a cyclical nature of poverty, with deeply ingrained societal structures creating a glass ceiling that many homeless students struggle to break. This also makes it harder for these students to receive adequate help. California schools are required by law to identify homeless students and provide them with services, such as school supplies and additional tutoring. Yet many schools fail to report any homeless students, either because they have a limited definition of homelessness or they do not prioritize the needs of their undocumented students or people of color. Thus, these students do not receive the tools needed to succeed. Students of color and undocumented students are more likely to be homeless and suffer more in school as a result.

Ultimately for these kids to succeed, they need a stable place to live. However, California housing costs continue to rise and make that need all the more inaccessible. The median home in California is 2.5 times more expensive than the national median home. Many Californians are unable to rent, let alone buy, a place to live in the state. As housing prices become increasingly unaffordable, the number of homeless people also grows. California is now home to about 20 percent of the nation’s homeless population. Many of those people are students. While schools need to do a better job of identifying and helping their homeless students, local communities also need to fight for affordable housing in order to adequately help these children.

However, schools and other organizations are trying to provide homeless students with these missing tools. College leaders have started to find ways to reduce costs for tuition and academic resources, such as textbooks, as well as to create shuttle services to reduce transportation costs. Non-profits, such as the Fighting Back Partnership, help parents understand American schooling system and provide adult literacy classes. Others, such as Central Coast Future Leaders, want to get students into college by assisting with applications, financial aid, and career decisions. Homeless students often are “invisible” in schools and do not receive the support they need. But, as people become more aware of the issue, schools and organizations are beginning to fight the housing insecurity faced by thousands of students across the state of California.

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