On Tuesday, June 16, Senator Patty Murray, Senator Lisa Murkowski, and Senator Dianne Feinstein sponsored “Voices of Youth,” a discussion among 10 formerly or currently homeless youth, ages 19 to 21, who talked to one another and shared their stories while the audience listened and learned. The discussion was facilitated by Ms. Barb Dexter, a homeless education liaison for the Anchorage School District in Alaska and Chair of the National Association of the Education of Homeless Children and Youth (NAEHCY) Scholarship Committee.

The speakers opened up about experiences they had growing up without permanent homes and stability. They discussed family and living situations, barriers they faced with housing and education, and how, despite all these hardships, they managed to graduate from high school and go on to attend college or get full time jobs. Each of the young speakers at the event had received an academic scholarship through the NAEHCY scholarship fund, which allocates money to support post secondary education for students who are experiencing or have experienced a lack of safe, permanent, or adequate housing at some time in their lives. The experiences these homeless youth shared with the audience gave insight into the lives of young people who may have roofs over their heads but are in unsafe conditions and still homeless, dealing with the same struggles that people living on the streets deal with.

Along these lines, one of the most widely echoed points by the panelists had to do with redefining our idea of homelessness. These students had spent extended periods moving from place to place, living with friends or relatives, or in cheap motels. As a few of them noted, they commonly had a roof over their heads, but were homeless nonetheless thanks to the fact that they had to keep moving because of misfortunes like abusive relationships or eviction. In one panelist’s words, “a house is not always a home,” and “you don’t have to live on the street to be homeless.” The students unanimously echoed this message, urging us to rethink our notion of homelessness. A resounding message from one panelist was that everybody in the room “knows [a homeless person], but not everyone knows that they know one.”

With regard to policy, the unfortunate reality is that the law, too, has an unfairly rigid view of homelessness. As it stands, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) does not see families who are “doubled up” in someone else’s house or are living in a motel as “homeless,” and excludes them from benefits accordingly. For example, take one panelist’s heartbreaking story, in which her family was not admitted to a homeless shelter until her mom was brutally assaulted by her stepfather, just because they had been living in a garage and therefore didn’t qualify as “homeless.”

Luckily, Representatives Steve Stivers (R-OH), Rodney Davis (R-IL), and Dave Loebsack (D-IA) along with Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Rob Portman (R-OH) reintroduced the Homeless Children and Youth Act of 2015 (H.R.576 / S.276) in January. This bill, which is endorsed by our partners at First Focus Campaign for Children, would amend HUD’s definition of homelessness to match that of the Department of Education, making it easier for struggling families to seek assistance services that could help lift them out of homelessness.

Along with this plea for a change in mindset, the panelists stressed the importance of the McKinney-Vento education program to their success. Through this program, students received assistance from homeless student liaisons who helped them achieve academic success and navigate the process of applying to college. The students advocated for increased funding for the McKinney-Vento program, as well as for increased access to federal and private financial aid, so that students like them could more efficiently enter and stay enrolled in higher education.

The problem of youth homelessness in America suffers from chronic low visibility. Unlike issues of education or child health, youth homelessness tends to be kept quiet both by those affected by it and by lawmakers. Events like Voices of Youth strive to mitigate this problem by giving youth a forum in which to speak out, and hopefully, with the correct combination of legislation and social action, we can see improved outcomes for our kids without homes.

Let’s by changing our notion of youth homelessness. New blog post |
Tweet this now.

Want to learn more? First Focus is a bipartisan advocacy organization dedicated to making children and families the priority in federal policy and budget decisions. Read more about our work on housing and homelessness.

Want to get involved? You can support our work on housing and homelessness by making a donation,  joining our mailing list to receive updates and action alerts on these issues, or taking action right now by visiting First Focus Campaign for Children’s action center for the Homeless Children and Youth Act.