By Nakita Scott, School Social Worker, HEARTH Project (Polk County, Florida Homeless Education Program)
When most people hear about unaccompanied homeless youth, their first thought is that these are youth who have discipline problems, refuse to follow the rules at home, and are failing academically. This perception is far from the truth. In the five years that I have been a School Social Worker with the HEARTH Project, I only have seen a handful of students who fit this description. For the most part, unaccompanied homeless students have managed to rise above their circumstances and achieve a variety of goals.
During the first few months of working with the HEARTH Project, I wasn’t aware of the vast needs of unaccompanied homeless youth. I conducted many assessments with students and at first, it seemed that they had basic needs related to the rights afforded them through the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act. Then I encountered a young lady who asked me a simple question: “What is the difference between a debit card and a credit card, and how do I balance my checkbook?” It was then that I realized these youth were on their own, without basic skills to take care of themselves. Their parents or guardians considered them capable of taking care of themselves, and yet did not provide them with the tools to do so. This scary truth prompted me to create a survival guide for unaccompanied students. It contains information such as scholarship links, personal finance, how to rent their own place once they are of legal age, life skills and local and state resources. I give this survival guide to every one one of my unaccompanied students, either in person during a school visit, or inside a backpack that we send to the school.
Another truth that I realized is that unaccompanied youth often are not aware of the steps necessary to achieve graduation and go to college. During my assessments with them, I discuss their grade point average, remaining graduation requirements, college entrance exams, and financial aid. For high school unaccompanied seniors, I assist them with completing the FAFSA and their college applications if they need it. I also help them research colleges that have programs related to their interest. For the past two years, my Social Work intern and I facilitate a postsecondary planning group that includes a college tour. We have a relationship with the local state college where many of our students choose to attend. This local college provides a tour and information session.
HEARTH is blessed to operate in a state that has passed legislation to assist our unaccompanied youth. In 2012, Florida Governor Rick Scott signed CS/HB 1351 which allows youth certified as an unaccompanied youth the right to obtain their birth certificate. For unaccompanied homeless youth, this was a great win that allowed them to obtain state identification, and eventually employment. In 2014, the Governor signed CS/HS 260 which allows certified unaccompanied youth ages 16-17 to consent to their own medical, dental, and mental health treatment, as well as forensic testing, surgical diagnosis, and treatment and substance abuse treatment. This legislation helped us in formulating a relationship with our local health departments so that unaccompanied homeless youth could receive health services for a minimal fee or free of charge. Additionally, in Florida, there is no minimum age requirement to apply for ACCESS benefits (Food Stamps and Medicaid) through the Department of Children and Families. I assist youth in completing the online application. I have had many students get approved for benefits, which allows them to purchase food for themselves and receive medical insurance. The HEARTH Project has a Homeless Youth Taskforce that works to find solutions to barriers that unaccompanied homeless youth face within the community. Our collaboration with the local health department is one of these solutions.
We also collaborate with Title I for services for our unaccompanied youth. Many of our youth attend Title I schools and receive services that are provided through the school. In addition to covering my salary and the salary of some of my co-workers, Title I funds part our tutoring program. Tutoring services are offered at three of our local homeless shelters, and at scattered sites in public places such as local libraries. Unaccompanied youth can receive subject area tutoring and tutoring to prepare for the ACT and SAT college entrance exams. Other HEARTH services include covering the cost for cap and gown, yearbooks, prom tickets, and other needs that may arise through community donations.
As the School Social Worker whose primary function is assisting unaccompanied homeless high school youth, I strive to ensure that these youth are afforded access to the same resources and opportunities as non-homeless students. For some, I am the one of the few adults in their life who cares to see them succeed – not just in education, but in life. In the words of John F. Kennedy, “one person can make a difference, and everyone should try.”