“Giving up is not an option:” Higher Education and Homelessness

Education
Housing & Homelessness

The end of the semester usually arrives with much excitement for college students who plan to return home. But there are approximately 58,000 homeless college students in the US for whom this is not the case. For those students, breaks from school are a frightening reminder of the adversities faced by homeless youth.

Yesterday, I had the privilege of listening to twelve formerly and currently homeless students discussing issues involving education, housing, healthcare, and foster care. The “Voices of Youth” panel was sponsored by Senators Patty Murray (D-WA), Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), the Congressional Homelessness Caucus, and The National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth (NAEHCY).

Joel S. of Ft. Lauderdale, FL spoke of his experience sleeping on the floor of a body shop office during one of his breaks. Another student noted that she was not able to begin classes because of a $4000 housing deposit that she could not make. Over the course of the discussion, it became evident that US colleges and universities are not doing enough to assist their homeless students.

For homeless youth, school is often a place of escape, freedom, and stability. Many children are able to leave dangerous home environments because of the actions and guidance of school social workers and counselors. And the McKinney-Vento Education for Homeless Children and Youth Program eliminates many barriers to the enrollment and retention of homeless students in K-12 public schools and improves their educational outcomes so they can eventually attend college.

But when it comes to higher education, there exist gaps in the method by which homeless students apply for and receive financial aid. The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is confusing and difficult to use for unaccompanied homeless students, who often cannot fill out sections related to family or individual financial contributions.

While the College Cost Reduction and Access Act (CCRAA), signed into law in 2007, has provided some support to these youth, simply restructuring the FAFSA and raising awareness about homeless students is not enough. On November 21, 2013, Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) introduced the “Higher Education Access and Success for Homeless and Foster Youth Act” (S. 1754). The bill would make college more affordable for homeless youth and build support mechanisms in institutions of higher education. Additionally, Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, (D-MD) introduced the FAFSA Fairness Act of 2013 (H.R. 3446), on November 12, 2013, which would allow unaccompanied homeless youth to complete the application as “provisional independent” students.

Hope and resilience were underlying themes in the “Voices of Youth” discussion. According to one homeless student, “No matter how challenging things were, school let me get away from them.” It is crucial that homeless students have the support they need to stay in college and graduate. In the words of one of the students at the panel, “Giving up is not an option.”