By Latte Harris, SHC Young Leader. This story originally appeared on SchoolHouse Washington’s “Collaboratory” series highlighting first person stories and voices from the field., and has been posted here with permission.
I am a 2015 graduate of Evergreen High School in Vancouver, Wash., and an incoming senior at Portland State University, majoring in sociology. Throughout high school and part of middle school, my family and I were homeless. During that time, we found shelter in cars and motels, and some nights were spent walking because those previous options were not viable.
Oftentimes, we stayed in Portland and traveled across the state line to go to school. Even then, and especially now, education has been both my saving grace and my greatest enemy. It has kept me sane and aligned the moving parts involved in creating my version of a successful life. However, it also has caused me great stress and anxiety.
Last month, I was fortunate to be among a group of 14 youth scholars who visited the nation’s capital for a leadership, advocacy and policy summit organized by SchoolHouse Connection, a national organization addressing homelessness by focusing on education.
The summit featured a congressional briefing that I expected U.S. Sens. Patty Murray of Washington and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska to attend, however staff members came in their place. My youth scholar peers and I discussed with the congressional staff and U.S. Department of Education officials the challenges that students experiencing homelessness face, as well as what has helped us the most in achieving our own academic successes.
While at the summit, I was experiencing so many emotions. Not only for myself, but for the other youth scholars. At one particular instance, I was sitting next to another scholar while a peer was sharing a story from her own homeless experience. Her story really hit me, and I felt it in my chest. I struggled to keep my composure when all of a sudden I felt a warm hand weave its fingers into mine.
It brought me immense comfort. I was immediately soothed with the idea that I was not completely alone in this struggle of trying to adhere to mainstream society, a place where I have to wear a mask in order to navigate both homelessness and higher education while still trying to express myself in what is deemed an appropriate fashion. But there in the room with the other scholars, I felt freed.
What did I learn at the summit?
I learned that there are people in government who are sincerely interested in addressing youth homelessness. I know that when my family was homeless, we were suffering and it felt like we were all alone. We had immense difficulties getting help with housing and food from state and local government, so I had never really thought about what was happening behind the scenes legislatively that allowed me to even have the support of a McKinney-Vento liaison at my high school.
What did the summit make me think about?
I thought about what I could do to help youth experiencing homelessness, especially those who are invisible and slipping through the cracks. Throughout the various intimate testimonies of my peers, the concern repeatedly expressed had to do with the traumas that youth experiencing homelessness deal with. While food and shelter are pressing and immediate needs, long-term success really depends on the amount of attention paid to our mental health.
What are a couple of good ideas that came forward?
I found out about an effort already in the works to place McKinney-Vento liaisons on college campuses. This was most exciting to me because of the relationship I had with my own McKinney-Vento liaison at Evergreen and the integral role she played and continues to play in my educational success.
There also was talk about the need to establish a new and better operational definition to identify students experiencing homelessness. Many of us who attended the summit were homeless for years before we received any recognition or assistance. Most of us had flown under the radar because we consistently received high grades in school.
How do I feel coming away from the summit?
Just the fact that we were there in Washington, D.C. at the Department of Education makes me plenty optimistic. But being able to disclose the realness of homelessness to people who have the power to translate my experiences into legislative solutions makes me feel truly hopeful. At the same time, I know that legislation takes time, which saddens me. There are far too many youth experiencing homelessness at this very moment, and with rents rising everywhere, we can’t wait for solutions. We need them now.
What was the best part of my experience at the summit?
I felt heard. I felt that, for once, I was allowed to hope. I had the opportunity to share the realness of my personal story to a positive reception. By recognizing my hardships as well as those expressed by the other youth scholars, it felt as though our narratives were being validated. That validation aids us as individuals as we continue to rehabilitate from the traumas we went through when we were homeless, and for some of us, still going through.