By Caitlin Cheney
As a homeless student, icebreakers were always tough for me. If my classmates asked about my family or tried to organize sleepovers, I couldn’t tell them that me and my younger sister didn’t have a place to live. I was afraid that if they knew, they would take her away from me.
Even though she and I are three years apart, my sister was the best part of my childhood; the bond I have with her is the strongest I’ve ever had with anyone.
While I saw her as a source of joy in my life, she saw me as a source of protection.
As someone with learning disabilities, my sister depended on me to protect her from our mother, who was often so enraged by my sister’s behavioral problems that she became violent and abusive. We moved around a lot too, often because we were evicted.
With everything going on at home, school should have been a safe haven for the both of us. It wasn’t.
Without a Home, Help is Hard to Come By
While I was my sister’s protector at home, I had to be her advocate at school. Every time we moved to a new school, I did my best to talk to her teachers and principals about her learning disabilities ― hopefully without bringing up our homeless and unstable family status ― and make a suitable curriculum plan.
You would think that the teachers and principals I spoke to would have wondered why a child with learning disabilities needed her older sister to fight for her. This should have been a sign to the school district that things were tough for the two of us or that we needed help.
But nobody ever asked us why we were afraid to call our mom or go home. They never questioned why we would flinch and shut down when people became angry and loud.
Looking back on it now, all the signs of abuse were there, maybe more obvious to me because I lived it, but not a single one of the five schools we were forced to move to made any real effort to help us.
Instead of asking us why we didn’t have school supplies, why we couldn’t type up our assignment or go to the library, they punished us.
For many teachers, helping students means a phone call home. And since we didn’t have a home, we didn’t have help.
My Advice to Teachers and Schools
More than 1.3 million students in the United States are homeless, which means that more than a million kids may be going through what I did.
This school year, teachers and school districts will be required by federal law to do a better job of supporting students.
Here is my advice to them:
Listen to what a child needs and give them an opportunity to confide in you. Sometimes students can come up with a better plan of action than their parents, so hear what they have to say.
Let students know about all the services out there that can help kids in their situation, such as extracurricular activities, volunteer opportunities and the truth about foster care ― that it really can help.
My Advice to Homeless Students
To any homeless students out there, all I can say is that there is help out there if you keep looking for it. Do not internalize your problems, because they will eat at you forever. Don’t be afraid of the system, because there are more paths to be taken now than there used to be.
And even though it will be hard, stay in school.
Education is the strongest secret weapon anyone can have, because it is driven by your own will to succeed. People respect you more if you hold yourself with the dignity of independent thought, if you are willing to offer society everything you can no matter how or where you grew up.
I fill my conversations with subjects like biology ― the evolutionary significance of archaeopteryx and discoveries of new species in deep sea trenches ― instead of struggles to understand the hate my mother had for her own child. I understand the former more clearly, so I focus on knowledge I can control.
That is the key concept here: Focus on what you can control, like self-dignity and education. That’s something nobody can take away from you.
To learn more about the state of homeless students in America’s public schools, read the recent report – Hidden in Plain Sight – authored by Civic Enterprises, along with Hart Research Associates, and released by the GradNation campaign earlier this year. You can continue the conversation online using #UnseenStudents.
Caitlin Cheney, 22, is a 2012 Scholar for the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth (NAEHCY) and an honor student at Washington State University, where she studies zoology and wildlife ecology. After graduating with a B.S. in 2018, Caitlin will continue her education as a master’s student, ultimately preparing for a career in global endangered wildlife conservation and preservation.
She has vowed to be the voice for those who cannot fight for themselves.