As Youth Homelessness Rises, Students Turn To School For Help
The face of homelessness in Michigan is looking younger. The Michigan Coalition Against Homelessness reports more than 65,000 people in this state are homeless. About one percent of those are unaccompanied minors. And the number is slowly rising.
"When You Turn 18, You're Leaving"
There’s a softness in Amber’s voice that reveals nothing of the turbulence of her not-so-distant past.
She’s 18 and a high school senior. At her request, we’re not revealing her full name.
Amber is candid about the emotional atmosphere that drove her out of her home and into a hasty adulthood.
“When I was a teenager, I was very disobedient and I was very angry all the time,” she says. “I blamed my mom for a lot of things and she blamed me for things.”
She would always be like, 'when you're 18, you're leaving. I don't want to deal with you anymore.'
Her mother was raising three girls on her own. Amber wanted things other kids had. So, she began stealing. But her self-described “acting out” attracted the wrong attention.
“I just remember, like, instances where the police would come to the house like, ‘Amber this, Amber that,” she recalls.
“And she’d always freak out. She would always (be) like, ‘when you’re 18 you're leaving. I don't want to deal with you anymore.’”
When summer came, Amber packed up and left. On her 18th birthday.
The Youthful Face Of Homelessness
Legally, Amber was an adult. But the implied maturity that surrounds that number doesn’t arrive overnight.
“Once a person turns 18, that doesn’t necessarily mean that all of their social conditions have changed,” says Parker James, an analyst with the Michigan League for Public Policy. “There’s kind of a transition into adulthood.”
James co-authored a report that examines the scope of homelessness among unaccompanied youth.
He says more than half of Michigan’s homeless aged 12 to 24 are African-American and Latinx. A growing number of LGBT youth are also finding themselves out-of-doors. That group makes up 40 percent of Michigan’s homeless youth service agency clientele.
The federal government defines a homeless person as someone who lacks “a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence.”
That covers a broad range of scenarios.
“Homelessness isn't just those individuals on the street or in a shelter,” James explains. “Often times it’s people couch surfing, you know; needing to rely on relatives or friends temporarily because of housing instability and things like that.”
Schools Are On The Front Lines
It’s an issue Michigan schools face every day. By law, all districts have a staff liaison whose mission is to help homeless students get the services they need.
In the Holt Public Schools, that’s Holly Scott.
“I'm not just getting them in school, I'm working to try to get them transportation and I'm working to try to get them clothing and working to try to get them housing,” Scott says. “You know…just, stability.”
In the 2018 school year, Holt had more than 150 homeless students; the second highest total in Ingham County. Lansing had more than 500. Some kids are LGBT; others have incarcerated parents and others are refugees.
All of them need the basics.
Scott keeps a so-called “homeless closet” fully stocked at all times.
Holt uses a mix of federal funds and donations to buy a lot of materials.
Gas cards for parents to fill up their cars. Student bus passes. A pop-up food pantry.
Then, there’s the emotional support that can’t be measured in money.
A homeless student is a high drop-out risk. Holly Scott encourages her colleagues to be a little more aware; a little more patient with their kids.
Confidentiality is paramount. So is earning their trust.
I was real scared and nervous. Would they try to take my mom to court for being a bad mother?
Scott says students are often reluctant to ask for help for fear of getting their parents in trouble.
“They still love their parents but they can't stay with them because of whatever situation is going on,” she says. “I think that that's difficult for them to come to grips with because that's their mom and dad.”
Amber understands that feeling. Even though she was no longer living with her mother, she worried that someone might investigate her.
“I was real scared and nervous,” she says. “Would they try to take my mom to court for being a bad mother? You know, I thought about those things like, what do they see as a fit parent?”
But Amber found sympathetic ears. No judgments.
The Attitude of Adulting
Amber will graduate in the spring. She plans to attend a small private college near Chicago to study pastoral ministry.
Until then, she’s living with a family she knows from her church. She has a job and buys her own groceries. She calls it “adulting.”
“Don't get me wrong, I've had my crying moments,” Amber concedes. “But right now in my life I know that I'm doing good.”
Amber still visits her mother. She wants her to be part of her life. But there’s an awkwardness in the room sometimes. Some topics are taboo. Amber knows they’ll make her mother upset. So she holds back.
Right now in my life I know that I'm doing good.
At 18, Amber is no longer classified as an unaccompanied homeless youth. But hundreds of others in Michigan still are. Now, as they seek stability, homeless advocates are striving to reduce the time it takes to place them into permanent housing.