The number of homeless youth in Ohio is on the rise, more than doubling since 2005.
Many of these young people know a degree is their best bet to get out of homelessness, but getting A’s can be tough when you’re looking for a roof to sleep under.
Leana and her three siblings grew up in their grandmother’s two-bedroom house. By the time she was 18, Leana had one child, and was pregnant with her second.
As a result she missed a lot of class because, she says, “I’d be running around a lot, so I’d be missing school, or stuff would be happening with the baby sitter. Stuff like that, so I’d miss a lot of days of school.”
The house wasn’t big enough for everyone, and her grandmother was getting too old to care for all of them.
Leana decided to move into a homeless shelter.
She asked us not to use her last name because of the stigma of homelessness.
She says the homeless shelter was a “different” experience, one filled with “nasty food, nasty people, and stuff like that.”
Two months later, Leana moved out.
“I’d never been on my own. It was hard. I couldn’t stay in the shelter,” she says.
These days, she’s living with a friend’s family in what homeless advocates call “doubling up,” and she’s still in school.
In fact, she just took her cap and gown graduation pictures. She’ll be the first in her family to earn a high school degree.
Leana made it through school with the help of Project ACT, the homeless student program at Cleveland schools.
Marcia Zashin is the director of Project ACT and the homeless liaison for the district, which has about 2,500 homeless students.
Zashin says many of these kids miss classes, switch schools a lot, or simply drop out.
“Our families move from place to place,” she explains. “They may stay with one family for a few weeks and then that family really needs them to move on so then they’ll go and stay with another family. They’re very transient.”
Which is why Cleveland schools allows homeless students to stay in their school of origin, regardless of where their family moves in the district.
Eleven-year-old Iman Mohammed’s family recently lost their house in foreclosure. They’ve been living in a shelter, but Iman says she doesn’t really miss the house.
Her mom, Shatibah says she was relieved to find out Iman would be able to stay in her original school – Northeast Ohio College Preparatory – a charter school in Cleveland.
Shatibah says, “sometimes children don’t take very likely to change, and sometime change isn’t very good for kids depending on their maturity and their understanding.”
The tough economy and foreclosures have contributed to the sudden increase in homeless students.
The Ohio Department of Education estimates there were close to 12,000 homeless students in 2006. Last year, there were nearly 22,000.
But those are just estimates. Homeless students are difficult to keep track of.
For example, Warren City Schools has the fifth highest poverty rate in the state, but lists only one student as homeless. That’s because the district does not count doubled up students as homeless.
Similarly, different government agencies define homelessness differently.
That can get very confusing for homeless youth, says Angela Lariviere, a youth advocacy leader at the Coalition on Homelessness and Housing in Ohio.
She says the Department of Education counts doubled up students like Leana as homeless, but other federal departments - Housing and Urban Development and Health and Human Services – do not.
“Within each of those agencies there are different rules and requirements for eligibility, and youth who think that they’re eligible for one are not and they may not realize if they’re eligible for another,” Lariviere says.
“That’s where the frustration and the confusion come in. That’s where they stop asking for help.”
Lariviere says students living with friends or family should count, because “that isn’t stability. I mean you’re never know where you’re going to sleep every night.”
Glennville High School sophomore Tyree has lived doubled up for the last few years. His single mother couldn’t support him and his nine siblings alone. He used to live with his cousin’s family, but it was overcrowded and there were frequent arguments. Now he lives with his stepfather, and says he’s doing well – better than he did at his last school.
Tyree is glad he’s improved his grades recently.
“When I was at John Adams it was hard for me to get them up because I was going through an emotional stage, but now I got it together because I’ve got people that want to be involved with me so I think it’s better now that I got older,” he says.
Tyree finds comfort in sports; he plays football, runs track, and boxes.
“I’m just trying to keep myself out of the streets and everything because I’m trying to go to the NFL and I know if I be involved in the negative energy I’m not going to make it there,” he says.
Tyree’s hoping to land a football scholarship for college, where he plans to major in history. But for now, he hopes he doesn’t have to change high schools – or homes – again.