by Donna Verhoeven, Youth Outreach Coordinator, Merrymeeting Support Collaborative for Youth Experiencing Homelessness
Educational disruption for children and unaccompanied youth protected under the umbrella of the McKinney-Vento Homeless Act, is nothing new. Housing instability demands attention to the basic needs of survival, which are shelter and food, with education often falling to the bottom of the list.
The current global pandemic and national events have placed a tornado directly in the path of these children and youth, creating even more chaos. How will they weather this storm? I believe the key will be the pivot points of supports, both familiar and new, to these children and youth who are experiencing homelessness.
Our educational community, of which I am fortunate to be a part, has been one such familiar resource for this vulnerable population. They were quick to respond to anticipated needs of students facing unstable housing during a pandemic. Academic supports ensured access to communication regarding educational programming and directed those most vulnerable to additional resources within the community.
Access to clear, concise, and consistent communication was essential to encouraging educational engagement. My project, being a community and educational resource for McKinney-Vento students, assists by providing working phones, access to medical and mental health needs, food, shelter, employment, educational planning, transportation, personal hygiene items, applications for Maine Care and SNAP benefits, and an opportunity to process individual concerns.
The true pivot point in this storm is still evolving, as youth struggle with engaging academically and personally. The stories told by many of the youth I engage with reflect loss, separation, uncertainty, and concerns on how to move forward.
Many have already shouldered the impacts that homelessness inflicts prior to this pandemic, and now a new element resides in the storm. The pressures of unstably housed children and youth in this pandemic present greater domestic strife, substance use, financial struggles, food and employment insecurity, and greater health needs. The pivot point will truly require recognition given to the hearts, minds, and health of our children and youth, as they transition from storm to fairer winds.
Despite wavering winds, most of my students have remained engaged in learning. This engagement has required many more resources, flexibility, and active listening to both validate their experiences and identify supportive paths. The key continues to be consistent, caring, and helpful adults.
More than half of the high school seniors that I work with have postsecondary plans, while others are focusing on employment and stable adult housing. Some of my youth are moving towards a brighter future, taking driver’s education, and participating in recreational opportunities.
I remain optimistic about the resiliency of youth, and about the compassion of people to rise together to the meet challenge.