This past March a report from the National Center for Homeless Education found that the number of identified school-aged youth experiencing homelessness in the United States at any point during the year had reached 1.3 million students. In the 2017-2018 school year alone the Fairfax County Public Schools Homeless Liaison Office (HLO) identified and served 2,930 homeless students in Fairfax County.
Early adulthood is a critical moment in a young person’s life, and it’s especially important to Second Story that every young person has the safe havens and opportunities they need to stay in school, graduate, and pursue a hopeful future.
Read “Colby’s” story and the supplemental conversation with our Vice President of Residential Services, Meghan Huebner, to learn what types of challenges a high schooler experiencing homelessness might face and how Second Story steps in.
“Colby” is 18, a senior in high school. He has always had a tumultuous relationship with his parents. Their arguments would often escalate to shouting with a lot of insults exchanged on both sides. Sometimes Colby gets so angry and anxious that he runs away and stays with friends or sleeps in his car for a night. One day, after returning home, Colby finds his things in his front yard.
“I’m done with this,” his mom shouts at him. “You’ve found someplace to disappear so many times, I’m sure you can do it again. Don’t come back this time.”
Colby hardly knows what to say. Sure, things at home don’t feel the way he wishes they did, but sometimes his emotions get so big and he hardly knows what to do. He doesn’t want to leave home – he just wishes his relationship with his parents wasn’t so volatile.
Colby goes to a friend’s house and asks if he can crash for a while. He keeps going to class because he doesn’t want to miss too much school and see his grades suffer. Plus, he’s too embarrassed to let his peers or teachers know about his situation.
Eventually, Colby’s friend’s mom says Colby can’t stay forever, and after bouncing between a few more friends Colby knows he needs to find another place to stay. He gets a job working 30 hours a week at a local restaurant. He goes to school, heads straight to work, and often doesn’t arrive home until late at night. With an income of just under $900 month, the only place he can afford is a small apartment with three roommates.
How might someone in Colby’s position be at a disadvantage in school compared to a housed student?
Meghan: I think the chaos of life with the instability makes it tough. He doesn’t know where he’s going to be day to day, week to week, so it’s hard to plan on how you’re going to get homework done, or long term projects, or how you’re going to get to work the next day, if you’re not sure where you’re leaving from, or how to get back home after work if you don’t have a home to be going to. We’ve also had kids who have lost all their documents because they just had to bounce from place to place, and one of those times didn’t grab them.
Is it feasible to work part or full time, go to school full time, and still afford safe & stable housing?
Meghan: That’s really hard in Fairfax county. I ran the numbers – if you’re working full time at a minimum wage job, like at McDonalds, there’s no way you can rent anything in Fairfax County. You’re working, doing exactly what you’re supposed to do, and it’s just you – that means you’re not even taking care of anyone else. Alter that in any way, decrease your hours, or add another thing that you have to pay for, it’s still basically impossible.
Colby is just making ends meet. He’s paying rent and taking a public bus to school, but he’s often late after his long bus ride, and with so little sleep at night after his long shifts, he starts falling asleep in class. His grades begin to suffer.
What often happens to students in Colby’s position?
Meghan: School becomes less of a priority, because having a place to live and having food to eat is more of a priority, and youth don’t always want to share their situation with a stranger. ‘Do I really want my professor to know my personal business? No, I don’t.’ Or, kids don’t always label themselves as homeless. ‘I have a place to go today so it’s ok.’ And that’s how HUD labels homelessness – if you have a place to go today, you’re not homeless. But if you’re sleeping on the floor of a closet, it’s really hard to study or get work done.
What is Second Story’s alternative?
Meghan: Providing housing for clients in host homes or doing rental support. We also look at wherever we’re housing someone in Second Story for Homeless Youth or Second Story for Young Mothers. It has to be a place that we have been to and looked around. What do they have access to? Do they have access to a way to prepare food? Do they have access to a bathroom? Do they have a bed? We’ve had kids who have asked us to support them while they sleep on so-and-so’s couch or so-and-so’s floor, but if we’re going to step in and support them we’re going to make sure it’s a legal bedroom.
Why are resources like Second Story’s necessary?
Meghan: So young people like Colby have an opportunity to graduate from high school! There’s also another aspect – Fairfax County does not have a level playing field regarding a kid’s background. That is true of many areas, but Fairfax County is huge and very diverse socioeconomically, so you have kids who are coming from all different situations and all different levels and we’re trying to help those kids who are really struggling in the housing area.
What could happen to a student like Colby if they don’t have support like Second Story?
Meghan: They might not graduate, which puts them at a significant disadvantage in terms of entering the labor force. They could find themselves trying to be housed in risky situations, exchanging whatever they have to offer, which isn’t much, for a safe place to stay or for food. They could lose touch with the adults who are already connected with them – school sometimes is a huge support for them. They lose that, and there’s not much left for them.
Colby, once a good student, begins failing classes. He just doesn’t have time or energy to study or do homework after getting home from work late at night, plus he’s exhausted every day, so he can hardly pay attention to his teachers or focus on tests. He faces an impossible decision: fail out of school, or quit his job and become homeless again. He picks the option he feels is necessary to survive, and drops out of school.
Are students often forced to drop out of school to make ends meet? If so, what does Second Story do to help?
Meghan: We definitely have students who have dropped out of school. Fortunately, we have a variety of programs and eligibility requirements so we can get a student housed who may not currently be enrolled and they can re-enroll. We can work with them to get the support that they need or help them explore other education options. Fairfax County has a good variety of adult education choices, so it might be getting a GED, but through the school system that works for them, or it may be self-paced or online, evenings, whatever arrangements, to get a high school diploma or equivalent. We go to IEP meetings, hearings, and other meetings where students learn about their options and make a determination about what they’ll be able to do.
With Second Story’s help, what does a typical resident’s trajectory look like?
Meghan: If they haven’t already, getting connected with the Homeless Liaison’s office so they have access to transportation to school, they have access to free and reduced lunch and breakfast if they haven’t already, have access to any assistance they need with school fees because graduation gowns cost money, getting connected with housing, or any connections with concrete needs – do they need a bed? Food? Clothing? School supplies? Getting their health issues addressed – that’s huge. Working with the school staff to check in on how school is going and attendance. Do they need a tutor? Connecting them with that if they need that. If there are any issues with the housing, helping them to navigate adulting with a landlord. Maybe their roommates are loud or the landlord is setting expectations they don’t think are realistic. How can they problem solve so they don’t give up and disappear or break house rules just to get their needs met? And hopefully being able to work with them until they do graduate from high school. We’ve had kids who have been in the program for four years because that’s how long it might take – but they may have a lot of educational needs, we’ve had kids get diagnosed who didn’t have a diagnosis before and helped them get special education or other support services in place.
With Second Story’s help with rent, Colby can cut back to working a more reasonable 10-15 hours a week. He meets with a case manager who helps teach him life skills like time management and self-sufficiency now that he’s living on his own. He also gets free counseling services to help process the challenges he experienced growing up. Colby gets his education back on track, graduates from high school, and pursues a college education.
Challenges with housing can be a devastating blow to a young person’s education, sending them down a slippery slope – without a high school diploma it can be hard to find good employment and they could get stuck in poverty and homelessness. Second Story helps young people become self-sufficient so they can graduate from high school, seek higher education or learn a trade, and reach their full potential.
*Colby is not a real person, rather an example of a typical young person assisted by Second Story.