by Jennifer Friend, CEO, Project Hope Alliance
I went to school while experiencing homelessness, without a pandemic.
I write this piece as a mother, community member, and leader who has the privilege of walking alongside our nation’s children and youth experiencing homelessness. I also write this from a place of frustration, disappointment, resolve, anger, and direct empathy for our nation’s kids.
Headlines and newsreels are loud with voices opining on what learning should look like for our nation’s children amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. We hear the voices of politicians, public servants, teachers, unions, administrators, parents, and doctors but what is glaringly absent from the conversation is the voice of our most vulnerable children. Most certainly, we must make data-informed, properly advised, risk-conscious decisions for the protection of not only the health of our precious children but also their families, our teachers, cafeteria workers, school nurses, and critical janitorial staff.
So let’s start there, and review what we already knew pre-pandemic:
- There are 1.3 million children experiencing homelessness identified in our public school system.
- A child experiencing homelessness is 87% more likely to drop out of high school than their housed peers.
- A high school diploma makes a youth almost 400% less likely to be homeless as an adult.
And in the last 6 months mid-pandemic, we learned even more from an LAUSD study:
- Low-income students lag 10-20 percentage points behind their more affluent peers.
- Students identified as homeless, or who are in foster care had a weekly attendance rate of 50% or lower.
The gaps and barriers brought on by homelessness have not changed much since I was a child, and in fact, they have worsened. We are talking about an alarming number of kids sleeping in cars, shelters, couch surfing, and crammed with multiple families inside small apartments or motel rooms. In fact, outside of school, many of them lack breakfast and lunch each day. They lack kitchen tables to sit alongside their parents to do their homework, Wi-Fi connectivity, and the technology needed to access and meaningfully participate in online learning. Having personally gone from homelessness to a law firm partnership, I can tell you that Horace Mann was right when he claimed that education is the great equalizer.
I’ve been going out to motels throughout Orange County since the first safer-at-home order, distributing Chromebooks, prepaid Wi-Fi hotspots, and school supplies homeless students needed to do homework. I implore you to not allow for the great equalizer of the conditions of our children’s futures and the hope that springs from education to be taken from them. When I went to school, I got to be just like everyone else. Economic disparities will now be on full display during live video calls. Let most of us dare not suggest that our challenges rise to the same level as the mom I met in a crowded Anaheim motel room using her spotty cellular data & outdated iPhone to bring her three children online to access their education.
I am certain that parents, like me, would voluntarily elect to keep our children home so that children who desperately need to be in the classroom can be. And, we know that there are teachers who will volunteer to go back into the classroom to teach them. We can find creative solutions if we have the moral courage to try.
We must take ourselves and political considerations out of the center of the circle and place our children in the middle. Until we do that, we will continue to rob our poor and homeless children from one of the greatest remaining equalizers and catalysts of hope that our nation has, education.