I Believe in Human Rights: Youth Homelessness and Education

Cross-posted from the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness Blog

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.

Deb Delisle is the assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education at the U.S. Department of Education.

6 Comments

  1. If we as a country really want to make improvements in our status there needs to be great consideration taken to alleviate the homeless conditions in our communities. Higher education is a worthy first step to invest in to reduce the number of jobless, homeless, non-productive citizens in our society. Do not judge, but listen. Do not deny, but realize that you could be downsized, laid off or have your employer relocate and therefore turn you into a ……. what you think of when you see homelessness in your community. We have been Blessed and God is still in business. let Him work through you. Peace, Love and Joy to you and yours.

  2. I am 30 years old and considering going back to school in the education field. Wasn’t sure if I could do it. But now after reading the article, and seeing how courageous these kids are, and seeing how many obstacles they had to overcome, has encouraged me to go back to school, and get a higher education to help children in the same situations.

  3. The essence of nation’s solution to minimize the increasing number of homeless children and improve society’s educational success ratio at the same time falls within its ability to realign the three major components of holistic services – character, skill, and academic development. Many of the nation’s school systems have incomplete systems when compared to holistic services. The typical approach is academic development (federally mandated), and skill development (federally mandated but diminishing). Character development is mandated in some aspects yet dismal in practice. Behavior is a trained characteristic. Despite the many influential sources, education is the most consistent and enforce source of impact (8 hours a day, five days a week, an average of 182 days a year for 13+ years.

    • “The essence of nation’s solution to minimize the increasing number of homeless children and improve society’s educational success ratio at the same time falls within its ability to realign the three major components of holistic services – character, skill, and academic development.”

      Wait, WHAT?!?!? So the homeless kids who can’t even get into Head Start because their funding was eliminated are homeless due to deficiencies in “character, skill, and academic development”? None of those, instituted in school for kids who are already homeless, will solve the problem. Getting those families HOMES will. Getting those families jobs with living wages stands a better chance. But throwing education at them – eh, not so much.

  4. Everyone deserves a chance. Not all children are blessed with foundational upbringings, but they should not be left behind. Great article.

  5. Madam Secretary — this is a moving and important entry. One thing missing is that the scholarships are given “in memory of André E. LeTendre, husband of Mary Jean LeTendre, former Director of Compensatory Education for the U.S. Department of Education.”

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