When Students Have No Home

Originally Published in the Greater Park Hill News – May 3rd, 2021

It’s Hard To Learn, When You Don’t Know Where You’ll Sleep

By Erin Pier

For the GPHN

Erin Pier

I grew up in the suburbs of Kansas City, surrounded by white, middle-upper class Catholics. Because my experience with those who were different from me was so minimal, I have distinct memories of my first encounters with diversity of any kind.

I was around 7 when we took a family vacation to Washington D.C. Other than getting separated from my family on the subway (a memory as fresh now as 30 years ago), the only other thing I remember from that trip is the first time I saw a person asking for money on the street.

An older Black gentleman was standing outside a storefront. As we passed by, he held out a worn styrofoam cup containing a few bills and loose change, and said something to us. As many parents do, my mother pulled me closer, and instructed me not to make eye contact.

I didn’t understand why he was asking for money on the street. And I didn’t understand why I wasn’t supposed to look at him. But I heeded her direction and spent the rest of the trip, and many years that followed, making sure to look away.

Stop looking away 

“Hidden in Plain Sight.” “The Invisible Million.” “Unseen and Unheard.” These are some of the many headlines I read while researching information about the unhoused in America … an entire population, unseen.

As humans, our brains attempt to shield us from experiences that are traumatic or uncomfortable, especially when we are repeatedly exposed. What once triggered an intense emotional reaction from us can become an accepted part of the human experience when we feel we lack the ability to change the outcome. We normalize trauma, violence, and poverty, suppress our emotional response, and instead of asking what we can do, we look away.

But instead of looking away, we need to turn toward that which makes us uncomfortable, and ask, why? Why are we uncomfortable? Who are the people that we turn away from, and how did they get where they are?

As our neighborhood prepares to welcome a community of unhoused individuals, I felt compelled to explore the answers to these questions. And as with all of the issues we tackle here at Park Hill Neighbors for Equity In Education, education is a central theme.

Students without homes

According to a report from the Institute for Children, Poverty and Homelessness (ICPH), 1.3 million students are experiencing homelessness across the country. In the Greater Denver area, 13,000 K-12 students were documented as homeless in 2019.

This year 1,417 DPS students are identified as eligible for services through a federal program that provides services to students who lack “a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence.”  Given that this number is dependent on families reporting their circumstances, it is likely that these numbers are an underrepresentation of those who are unhoused.

While we often envision the homeless in America as living on the streets, many of the unhoused among us are families who find shelter in our neighborhood, students who attend our neighborhood schools.

According to the nonprofit, Invisible People, one-third are families. The typical homeless family is a young, single mother of two children, often fleeing a situation of domestic violence and seeking safety in a motel or emergency shelter. Most mothers who experience homelessness have limited education, so finding a job that pays enough to cover rent, childcare (so she can work) and other expenses is not just challenging, but often impossible.

Six percent of the unhoused among us are young people, without a parent or guardian, between the ages of 14 and 24. Black youth are at an 83 percent increased risk compared to their white peers. Youth who identify as LGBTQ are more than twice as likely to have experienced homelessness.

There is also a disproportionate representation of foster youth — approximately 12 to 36 percent of youth who age out of the foster care system become homeless. Most often though, youth become homeless because of abuse, neglect, or other trauma at home.

Racial inequities of homelessness  

In DPS, homelessness disproportionately affects Black and American Indian/Alaskan Native students, mirroring the national data. While Black students make up 13.8 percent of the student population, they account for 23 percent of students who lack a regular residence. American Indian/Alaskan Native students make up 0.7 percent of the student population, but account for 2.3 percent of unhoused DPS students.

While the racial inequities of homelessness are the end result of multiple failures within our social system, we would be remiss to not acknowledge the link education plays in continuing the cycle of homelessness.

I have highlighted in previous columns how students are unable to participate in education in any meaningful way if their basic needs aren’t met. Data from the School House Connection, a national nonprofit, shows that children who have experienced housing instability are at an increased risk for delays in language, literacy, and social-emotional development, behavior concerns, difficulties with classroom engagement and social skills. Without intervention, these gaps in development and school performance follow students who have experienced homelessness, leading to disconnection from the educational system and putting them at increased risk for suspensions, expulsions, and dropping out before completion. In fact, unhoused students are 87 percent more likely to drop out of school than their peers with stable housing.

Without a high school diploma, youth are 4.5 times more likely to experience homelessness later in life … and thus, the cycle begins again.

A smile would be nice 

Decades after my first encounter with homelessness in D.C., I was driving down a street in Denver when I saw a cardboard sign from one of our city’s unhoused citizens that read, “You don’t have to give me money, but a smile would be nice.” The message struck me deeply; sure some spare change would be welcome, but a basic acknowledgement of his humanity? That would be even better.

We can no longer look away from the unhoused in our community, or pretend that the systemic failures of multiple systems is the fault of those from whom we turn.

There is much to be done, but it can start with a smile. An acknowledgement of the humanity behind the cardboard sign. A desire to not look away.

Join us at 7 p.m. on May 12 for PHNEE’s monthly (virtual) EdEquity Corner. We’ll discuss how you can help move the needle toward equity in all our neighborhood schools. Register here: http://tinyurl.com/edequitymay21

Erin Pier is a mother of three, a Stedman parent and school psychologist at AUL Denver. She is an active member of Park Hill Neighbors For Equity In Education, which works toward diversity, equity, and inclusion in all schools in the neighborhood.