Our Schools are Experiencing a Student Homelessness Crisis
Being a teenager is hard. In those formative years you learn about ideas, people, the world and yourself. You start to ask questions about what your life should look like, and you’re making decisions that affect what it will look like.
Despite the many challenges, changes and expectations they face, most teens will go through this stage with access to a variety of resources and more importantly, the support of their family and school.
But for a teenager experiencing homelessness, high school isn’t just hard — it can define the trajectory of his or her entire life.
In the 2017/2018 school year, 709 high school students in the Cleveland Metropolitan School District experienced homelessness. This number only represents a quarter of the 2,972 total students in grades preschool through twelfth grade who found themselves without a stable home.
Laura’s Home provides extended wraparound services for single women and mothers with children who are in crisis. This means that teens end up at Laura’s Home not by their own choice, but because their family is experiencing homelessness. And as teenagers, their challenges and paths to success are much different than those of adults or their younger siblings.
The Unique Challenges of Homelessness for Teens
Every individual who experiences family homelessness is in a unique crisis and requires a unique response. Small children are in desperate need of developmental care, and single mothers must find a way to maintain adequate income while being physically and emotionally present for their family. But teens find themselves caught in between — in need of restorative attention from what could be years of survival mode, but not yet old enough to establish their own household. The staff at Laura’s Home understands this clearly.
“Many of our teens experienced trauma throughout their childhood,” says Christina Hahn, family ministry coordinator at The City Mission. “And they haven’t had a period of care to consider those effects or how to process them.”
A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association confirms Hahn’s observations by reporting that by age 12, 83 percent of homeless children have been exposed to a violent event.
“Children who witness violence are more likely than those who have not to exhibit frequent aggressive and antisocial behavior, increased fearfulness, higher levels of depressions and anxiety, and have a greater acceptance of violence as a means of resolving conflict,” writes Helen Turnbull Goody in Rescue, a magazine for ministries like The City Mission.
Poverty is also the greatest predictor of child neglect, according to the Third National Incidence Study of Child Abuse and Neglect. Neglect that leads to trauma can take shape in many forms, including food insecurity that leads to physical neglect, or a parent working long hours at minimum wage that leads to emotional and mental neglect. Because of this neglect, children can develop unhealthy thoughts and behaviors in order to survive that will last into their teenage years.
Teens experiencing homelessness also face the challenges of constant transition to new schools, new temporary homes, and new people. Unfortunately, these new people do not always provide the tender assistance that unstable teens need. Adults that allow homeless families to stay with them cannot always be trusted, and overextended teachers are not always able to spend time helping a teen acclimate to a new environment.
“Many of our children at Laura’s Home also experience bullying from their peers once peers are made aware that the teen is residing in a shelter,” says Hahn. “To combat the effects of what might be years of trauma and a harsh support system, we have to work to combat the potentially life-long consequences in a variety of ways.”
A Personalized Approach
The City Mission believes that a one-size-fits-all approach will not work when stabilizing a person of any age. When a family arrives, the Mission begins to create consistency by linking teens to trauma counseling that they’ll receive while at Laura’s Home, and then will follow them after they leave.
Families at Laura’s Home also have the opportunity to choose the school system that’s best for their children while moms recover and determine a plan to achieve sustainable housing and stable income. While all children have the option to stay at their school of origin, it is not always the best choice for that family. Laura’s Home supports the mother’s decision to choose the appropriate education for her children. If it’s determined that staying in the same school will create the stability the teen needs, they’re then provided a public transportation pass through Project ACT, even if the commute is a great distance from Laura’s Home.*
The staff at Laura’s Home also takes time to care for teens as individuals through Pathways Family Services, the student-age program at Laura’s Home. If staff is made aware of any problems at school or in Pathways, they respond to meet the needs immediately and appropriately. This can be through advocating for the child’s needs in their schooling or providing referrals for counseling services. Pathways programming also provides a consistent, safe place for teens to voice their concerns and their shared feelings.
**Shawn is one teen who was able to find the advocates he needed in Pathways. He was struggling in school and was too embarrassed to let his teachers know that he was in a new, transitional home environment and that he needed help. Shawn and his mother eventually decided to share their concerns with Laura’s Home staff, and the Pathways team jumped into action. They found a volunteer who committed to work with Shawn on his academics twice a week at Laura’s Home. In just a short time, Shawn’s grades were improving, and he was sharing that he feels more confident in the classroom.
What Pathways Means for Moms
Having a safe space for teens to express themselves and discover their talents isn’t just critical for their healing, but their mother’s success as well. While teens are spending time in Pathways, moms have the opportunity to take advantage of classes at Laura’s Home, knowing that trusted professionals are caring for their children. Moms participate in a variety of courses, from parenting to financial planning to job prep — all skills that will assist them in creating a stable future for their children.
“I love sending my teen son and all my children to Pathways!” shares Kortne, a mother of a teen at Laura’s Home. “The youth program has helped all my children with their social skills and has helped them become well-rounded children. I love the structure Pathways provides and I love that my kids are in an environment that teaches and points them to Jesus.”
How You Can Be a Part of Making the Difference
For teenagers experiencing homelessness, today matters. These children need immediate assistance in order to recover from their crisis and map out a new path. Laura’s Home is currently in great need of groups and individuals to come alongside teens in a variety of ways. They offer a number of volunteer opportunities from one-time “Adopt-a-Day” activities for groups, to the more consistent role of mentoring kids like Shawn*. And Laura’s Home is just one of many organizations across the city focused on empowering teens! Run a Google search and determine what organization would align with your heart and schedule and send them an email.
While one of us cannot change the entire state of homelessness for the nearly 3,000 CMSD students experiencing crisis in our city, we can do something to change at least one teen’s life. When we care with our time, finances, and voices right now, we have the ability to interrupt the cycle of poverty for generations to come.
**A pseudonym was used to protect the minor’s privacy