Creating Higher Education Opportunities for Homeless Youth

I just attended the White House Policy Briefing on Youth Homelessness. At this meeting I got to meet Kristopher Sharp, who recently wrote about his experiences as a homeless youth. What was striking about hearing him speak was his pride, not in getting housing, but in the fact that he was going to be graduating from college in a few weeks. And this got me thinking. College. Right. That is what so many homeless youth need.

I have been working with homeless youth and homeless youth providers for the past 12 years. The great joy of working in this community is the sense of hope the youth engender. As the youth at the White House meeting reminded us, they want our help to become productive adult members of society. It is our job to create the opportunities for these youth to become just that. And that means education. We are fortunate that the McKinney-Vento Act provides funding to assist children in our schools who are experiencing homelessness, but what about the many youth who are 18 to 24 and need help with college?

In my experience working with communities who serve homeless youth, most of youth are 18 to 24 years old. This is an age that developmental psychologists now refer to as emerging adulthood. We know that the brain continues to develop during this time. In our society, while 18-year-olds have legal status as adults, our expectations of young adults are very specific. Think for a minute. For housed youth who are likely to become professionals and leaders in our society, what are they doing at this age? That's right. They are going to college. It is the pathway in our society for securing not just a job, but a career.

The youth at the White House meeting were quick to remind those in attendance that it is so very, very difficult to thrive working for minimum wage. One young woman tearfully described having to hold three minimum wage jobs simultaneously in order to feed her two young children. We should be striving to create opportunities for these youth to become social workers, engineers, and nurses, not cashiers or dish washers. Don't get me wrong, while I was in school I held both of those jobs, but they were a means toward my end goal of higher education.

We need to make two serious changes in our national housing policies around homeless youth in order to help propel these youth into higher education. First, for young adults 18 to 24, attending college must be viewed as a successful outcome for our housing programs. For youth, we should de-emphasize low wage employment and prioritize schooling as a route to long term stability. Second, young adults who are attending school full time must be allowed access to all housing opportunities funded by our government. Again, this is NOT the case. Because of restrictions placed upon housing developers through an IRS tax credit, youth who are placed in these housing programs cannot be full time students. We can make these two changes and help homeless youth go to college.

We also need a new set of programs for homeless youth which track them into higher education and support them there. When I was 20 years old, I was in a wonderful transitional living program with support services for education. It was called the dorms. We should be providing student housing, meals, and living allowances for formerly homeless youth who are accepted into college. And this support should continue to include graduate degrees as well. Perhaps one of the most important changes we can make it to create funding streams to pay the full costs of higher education for homeless youth. This won't solve all youth homelessness and not all youth will be ready for college, but many are ready and we need to get better at supporting these youth. We want more Kristophers!

Eric Rice, PhD, is an associate professor at the University of Southern California's School of Social Work and its online master's degree program MSW@USC. An expert in high-risk adolescent behavior and social network theory, Rice works primarily on issues of HIV prevention for homeless youth and impoverished families affected by HIV/AIDS. He works with several community-based organizations that serve homeless youth, including My Friend's Place, Safe Place for Youth and The Division of Adolescent Medicine at Children's Hospital Los Angeles.