IV. Student Perspectives

Student perspectives are essential to reaching a better understanding of how students facing housing instability navigate essential social services available through school systems. We interviewed thirteen students over the age of 18 who had experienced homelessness during their K-12 experience or in college. Half of the students we interviewed were identified by school districts, and the other half were from community drop-in centers. Findings from these interviews further reveal the challenges educators in our focus groups mentioned, such as the need for more dedicated staff and more focused training on identifying students experiencing homelessness. For example, several students said that the services and support provided by their schools had helped to improve their experience in school and outside of school. However, this was not the case for the majority of the students, who did not recall having access to targeted educational resources in their schooling.

Shared Experiences & Educational Patterns

Consistent with existing research, our data indicate that homelessness is not uniformly experienced (Miller, 201; Samuels et al., 2019; Edwards, 2020)—young people come from a wide array of backgrounds and living conditions—each of which has particular implications for the students’ broader education opportunities. Student interviews, diverse as they were, can help inform the development of services and supports that are currently lacking.

A lack of early mentorship and stability can fuel a sense of distrust and isolation.

Students reported struggling to identify influential mentors and caretakers, starting from an early age. While some youth have been able to begin forging stronger relationships as adults, many indicated ongoing challenges in finding people who they could trust and ask for advice and help. Students also gave examples of the consequences of not having mentors who could understand and identify with their circumstances. The lack of strong bonds fueled student feelings of isolation and hampered their ability to engage fully in the learning experience.

Adverse life experiences have changed the educational and employment trajectory of students (e.g. death in family, abuse, traumatic life events, loss of school equipment, job loss).

Students shared examples of how a series of “critical conditions” such as the death of a primary caretaker, sibling or parent, abuse from a family member, job loss or essential item in their life (i.e., computer for college classes), profoundly impacted their ability to live healthy, stable, productive lives. In some instances, a series of circumstances and challenges deterred students from pursuing their educational interests (Samuels et al., 2019). October, a youth from Northern California, shared her struggles in balancing her job and school demands.

I have to work, and I couldn’t be at school on time. There’s days where I just couldn’t get to work. I mean, I couldn’t get to school and really was just sitting in the classroom relearning everything I’ve already learned and just having to go through that and deal with the immaturity of other students and not having the understanding of the other students of the situation I’m in. Teachers didn’t understand either. There wasn’t that… like they knew, but they couldn’t fully grasp it, and they didn’t really seem to accept it [homelessness] as real. — October, 18

October worked to help sustain her educational and living expenses, and described that her peers and teachers sometimes did not understand her situation. Her experience parallels the challenges also mentioned by educators in the earlier sections, in that teachers and school officials often lack training and know-how to support students experiencing homelessness. Equipping educators with these empathetic skills would include preparing them to prevent bullying or unhealthy learning conditions that can result from peers failing to understand their challenging circumstances.

Students experiencing homelessness often lack the supports they need to fully engage in learning, which range from basic needs to emotional and physical safety.

Young people seeking services at homeless drop-in centers struggled to identify trusted adults in their life. They shared common challenges around meeting their basic needs, including obtaining a predictable income, adequate housing, and clean clothes and food. Students also shared stories of traveling great distances just to have their basic needs met. One young man said that he travels 90 minutes on public transportation several times a week to a Los Angeles area drop-in center to obtain food, clothing, and other social services. Another student shared that he chooses to stay in a community with fewer readily available resources for homeless youth that is safer than an area where services are more readily available. Young people under the age of 18 often face difficult choices, such as having to decide if they want to stay with their family in unstable conditions or separate from family and move to more permanent living situations that may not allow for families.

Educational Flexibility & Support

Interviews revealed many examples of students struggling within traditional academic settings, despite being highly intelligent, creative, independent, and socially adaptive in the face of highly adverse conditions (Reed-Victor & Stronge, 2002). Young people are eager for better educational opportunities and jobs, but often lack the resources to change their trajectories. Furthermore, current educational structures (e.g., school hours, student self-identification for services, and the fragmented nature of service delivery) can present barriers to improving the living conditions of students experiencing poverty.

Students cannot access the type of educational support they need.

It was difficult for many of the students who were interviewed for this report to highlight how educators or school systems have supported their academic development or social and emotional well-being. One student explained how he felt like he was just “passing through” the school system, changing schools every six months. He described a need for students impacted by homelessness to have a clearer path to services.

Make it more easily accessible for youth to acquire services that benefit them in their life and maybe make it also easier for them to see that there’s resources. From my position, my perspective, there’s no real access to resources that you can really call upon and say, ‘Hey, I need some help.’
— Cory, 20

Despite this common challenge among many of the students we interviewed, some shared examples of strong relationships with schools and educators. For example, Rosie, a current undergraduate student at a CSU campus in northern California shared,

There’s a couple of women that I’ve met out there that have been basically my counselors. I feel like that [organization skills] was something that I learned with their help when I was a senior, like getting yourself organized and how to budget your money. When you get to college, it’s the stuff that you don’t learn, but you should know. And so I just really thank her for that because I feel like I wouldn’t be succeeding in college without that type of help. — Rosie, 20

For many students like Rosie, high school educators played a critical role in helping to prepare her for college. One Los Angeles area liaison also shared that he drove a student to UC Merced for student move-in day because the young person did not have parents to join him. Stories like these are consistent with those of other students we interviewed who were also connected to robust social services networks and access to adults who could support their educational well-being. Once someone or a team of educators invests in students’ educational success, great things can happen.

The dynamic nature of highly mobile students in and out of the foster care system, and moving across localities and even states, requires more flexible and well-coordinated education opportunities (e.g., credit recovery, remediation).

Students experiencing homelessness face unique challenges because they are an unusually mobile population. Transportation and logistics around getting to school is just one of the challenges. They also face difficulties with credit transfers and missing days of school due to instability and mobility challenges. Sometimes appropriate student placement is complicated by an inconsistent or missing academic record by which to assess their knowledge and skill levels. Scholarship on evidence-based education models for educating students experiencing homelessness recommends that schools must allow for flexible schooling experiences and require schools to better structure schedules, coursework, and social organization to better serve unhoused student populations (Murphy & Tobin, 2011, Quint, 1994). In 2014, the California State Assembly adopted Bill 1806[7] to provide flexibility in credit accrual for students experiencing homelessness. However, the challenge still lies with having a consistent implementation strategy across schools. This issue is real for many students who experience housing instability since many will move schools, crossing districts, and sometimes states. In our student interviews, we learned it was common for students to attend various schools during their academic journeys. Ciara’s narrative illustrates the experience of highly mobile students. She started moving schools as early as sixth grade up until her senior year in high school.

My grades fluctuate because they always pull me out of school and put me in a different school and pull me out again and put me in this school. I went to three different high schools, just for a my Sophomore year. It was pretty hard to bounce everything back to where I could graduate or anything. I didn’t get to walk the stage. I still got my diploma [GED], but I didn’t walk the stage. — Ciara, 18

This vignette illustrates the importance of having consistent and flexible credit accrual practices to better support highly mobile students. That flexibility can relieve students from worry about whether pauses in their educational trajectory will negatively impact their learning progress.