Our students are all high school or college students facing housing instability – or homelessness – for one reason or another. Some sleep in shelters. Some in motels. Others sleep on the couches of friends and relatives. A large number of our students are unaccompanied youth, meaning they are pretty much on their own.
Each year, with help from community partners, we support students in Richmond, Virginia high schools by providing food and hygiene pantry items, cell phones, cell phone cards, emergency transportation, and money for field trips, band trips, class dues, and more. We also provide more intensive support, including an after school program and a weekly support group, for up to 16 students who are referred to our program from these three schools. Because our help does not end when a student turns 18 or graduates from high school, we also have college students who participate in Change the World RVA programs. This year (2016), we have 6 students in college — one each at VCU, Longwood, Norfolk State University, and Richard Bland College of William and Mary -- and 2 who are establishing themselves in the work force. All of these students serve as youth mentors to our younger students.
These kids face obstacles that most of us cannot begin to imagine. The good news is that with a community of supportive, caring adults, these amazing young people can achieve their dreams and more.
Our students face complicated and often overwhelming obstacles to academic success. Below are a few stories, in their own words.1 Try to imagine how you (or your own children) would fare in school if they endured similar challenges.
Casey. When my mom died 2 years ago everything changed. My dad’s girlfriend decided she didn’t want me in the house anymore and I was kicked out to live on my own. I am 20 years old and I am about to graduate high school, but where I will sleep at night I often never know. They ask me why I have trouble getting to school every day and being on time. I tell them everything is just hard right now and I will keep trying. The truth is I sleep where I can and if I can’t find a ride to school or if the bus cards run out before I can get some more, I won’t be able to get to school that day. I also worry about my seizures and how the stress of my life might bring on a seizure while I am at school. Of course the seizure meds are too expensive for me so I can’t take them all the time and my depression causes me to not get out of bed sometimes. But I know if I get to school I can have something to eat. They have food for me there I just need to get to school so they can help me. But where will I sleep tonight…oh I can’t worry about that now I have to get to school so I can eat.
Jay. When it’s cold I come to school more often because I cannot stay outside all day or I will freeze. I have to get to school to warm up. I have everything I own in my coat pockets, but if I can get to school they will feed me and give me snacks to take with me. They have already given me 5 coats this year I wear 2 currently. I don’t trust anyone and even though I know they care about me at school I only go when I absolutely need their help. I hate showering in the school because I worry someone might take my stuff but a shower is always offered. I rarely take them up on it. The school staff has found me 4 different places to live this year, but I have left all four…remember I have trouble trusting others because of everything that has happened to me. I feel safer on the streets. I know the streets. I have been out here off and on for the past 2 years. But I know whenever I want or need something the school doors are open and they will help me.
Katie. But mom we have already moved six times since I have been in high school I am tired of moving. Why can’t we just stay here, I wonder? None of my friends move like this why do we have to? I think I am a good student, but my grades don’t show it because I have never had the stability I need to do my work. It’s not like we move into a big house every time we move…we always moved into houses/apartments filled with a lot of other people. My bed is always on the floor no matter where we move…just spread out a few blankets and there’s my bed…but it’s always hard to sleep because the people we stay with never go to sleep when I need to sleep and it’s loud and there are fights…oh how am I going to make it sometimes I just want to give up! It is the school and my personal understanding of what an education can do for me that keeps me going…oh if only you could read my journal you would know why I am the way I am.
Chase. I can’t sleep tonight the bed bugs are on the prowl we have been living in a hotel for nearly 5 years now and I don’t understand what my parents stay here. I have so many scars from bed bug bites that the school social worker called Child Protective Services. It’s horrible I lie awake at night wondering when they are going to attack and if I happen to drift off to sleep they haunt my nightmares. I have been terrorized by bed bugs …I mean could you sleep when you knew bugs where crawling all over you…so I go to school and sleep at school. I would be a good student, but I give in to fatigue and fall asleep in the safety of the classroom.
Dominique. Sometimes when we really need to shower we park the car near a family, friend’s or acquaintance’s house while they are away. We break in a back window or door and take a shower. Once we shower we leave the scene and return to the car, the only house we know. But going to school gets me out of the car and gives me food. I feel safe there, I know that I will get the things I need and at night I return back to the car to sleep.
Jordan. I am pregnant. I guess I should have expected this since I had to live with my boyfriend and share his bed since I was 16…there was nowhere else to go and he was the only one who supported me. But I am going to make it! I am going to graduate high school and go to college for me and this baby!
Tina. High school is supposed to be fun, but the last year has been hard. After my mom’s break up with her partner our mortgage remained unpaid and the bank started the foreclosure process. I began to get D’s and C’s in school because I spent all my time working to help pay the bills. Then, just recently the house we lived in caught on fire and burnt down. Now, my mom is in a hotel, and I am staying with a friend. I cry a lot, it is the stress. I want to do well in school this year, but right now all I can think about is what is going to happen to my cat. He’s old, I have had him a long time…his is one of my best friends. But right now he is living on the back porch of our house that burnt down because no one will let me bring him into their house with me. I know it’s silly because there are so many other things I could be worrying about, but I am scared animal control might take him away because they will think we have abandoned him…oh why can’t we just find him a stable place to go until we are able to get our own place again. He’s my baby…I love him….I go over and check on him everyday. It’s hard right now.
1 These stories are composites, written so that no specific student’s privacy is violated. The stories were written by the RPS McKenney-Vento social worker serving our three high schools.