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Looking for Something Not Found in a Book: Homelessness and Students

Last year was my year of retirement from teaching. I didn't know it, but transitioning from the classroom to Crossroads Youth & Family Services would be one of the most profound changes in my life. I walked through the classroom every day wanting the students to be thrilled about our study of Hamilton, the hit Broadway musical, or writing a piece about deeper the meaning of Animal Farm. Better yet, I wanted them to take in Rich Dad, Poor Dad and be able to build a business to solve a problem in the community. On a philosophical level, most of what we studied was about people overcoming challenges. I wanted students creating, thinking, and communicating. I wanted them to overcome, but there were a few key things stopping that process. One of the most profound things that I noticed was the number of homeless students I encountered daily increasing over my twelve years as a teacher.

In my first period class, there was a student who always came in and put his head on his desk. As any "good" teacher would do, I went over and asked if he was feeling sick. He explained to me that he was homeless and didn't get any sleep the night before. He was barely making it and if the pandemic didn't happen he would have failed almost all of his sophomore level classes. With the strong urging of my old school district, great lengths were made to make sure students didn't have the added stress of failing on top of all that is going on in the world.

On a separate occasion, another student in this same class came running in right before the bell. He looked haggard and worn down to be a sophomore in high school. He was smelly and had bits of spit in the corner of his mouth. I pulled him to the side to see what I could do to help. He explained that he slept outside the night before after being kicked out of his grandmother's house. School was his only safe place, so he caught the bus and came anyway. This incident was by far not an isolated situation.

As school remained closed from March onward, I couldn't help but wonder what happened to these students. Were they safe? Were they home? I wasn't worried about their essay on Hamilton overcoming his obstacles, but about them overcoming theirs with the proper resources available.

My job was to teach English. My job was to prepare students for the ACT and the next grade even though both of these students were barely making it though the day.

The Number of Homeless Students is Growing

As a teacher, my objective was to make learning an active part of each student's every day life, but the reality is that many students are fighting just to get through the day. On any given night over 2,000 Oklahoma students are unaccompanied and homeless. What these students need isn't necessarily found in a script or in a book. It is a place of solace that can allow them to have their most basic needs to be met.

Crossroads Youth Shelter provides a safe environment for children and teens who find themselves in the unfortunate predicament of being separated from family. Some students are waiting for placement through Child Protective Services. Others are waiting to be reunited with family. The goal of Crossroads is to provide a safe place for students to have their basic needs met in order to allow them to continue learning and growing.

We link them with counselors to help them deal with the trauma of being young, homeless and sometimes helpless.

A teacher through the local school district comes to the Youth Shelter and works with students in small, socially-distanced groups to make sure they don't fall behind in school while they stay at the shelter. With basic needs met, students are able to work through individualized lessons.

My worlds have collided because as a teacher I felt helpless in these situations. What could I do? Now my job is the educate people of the severity of homelessness among teens and to ensure no teen is sleeping on the street when there is a safe place for them to stay. The answer is not always found in a book, sometimes it is found through peace of mind.

Have you known of young people dealing with homelessness? Please comment your stories down below. We want to bring awareness to this issue.

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