Sara Orris – Consultant at Oakland Schools

Can you tell us a little bit about your history and experience working with students who are homeless or face basic needs insecurity at Oakland Schools?

Oakland County is a unique county as it is one of the wealthiest counties in the country, and as a result people do not believe homelessness is a real concern. While we have areas that are very affluent, we also have areas that are economically disadvantaged.

This dynamic has both positive and negative impacts on our homeless students. On one hand, we have a great amount of community support in terms of donations and monetary support. For example, communities support students with generous donations of backpacks and school supplies and basic need items. However, on the other hand, there continues to be a lot of stigma and misunderstanding around homelessness in our community because of a lack of awareness and the prevalence of misperceptions. Students continue to go unidentified because some districts are still resistant to accepting that their community could even have homeless students.

One of our main goals at Oakland Schools Homeless Student Services is to continue to provide advocacy for our students, as well as training and technical assistance to both school district staff and community members so we can continue to break down these barriers. We want to inform communities about what homelessness really is, and identify those students who need support.

How does homelessness or basic needs insecurity affect a student’s schooling? Specifically during high school?

This is a huge area of concern. The high school years are a time when young people are developing and changing both emotionally and physically. They are figuring out who they are and developing self-worth and self-esteem. Not knowing where they are going to sleep from day-to-day, where their next meal will come from, and how they will be able to obtain personal hygiene items needed for basic needs can be overwhelming. Not to mention that they need to focus on school assignments and homework. Homeless students have often reported that they are so worried about where they are going to sleep or how to get their basic needs met that they often can’t focus on schoolwork. Without targeted support, homeless students all too often stop attending school altogether.

What are the academic challenges students who are homeless or face basic needs insecurity face on their path to college that other students may not experience?

Homeless students face a host of challenges that housed students may not. Homeless students often have to worry about where they are going to go to be able to complete homework assignments, having access to technology, or transportation to the library to be able to study or complete assignments. Homeless students are often unable to even see themselves attending college because they are so mired down in the day-to-day trauma of homelessness. They are worried about where they will live once they are in college during breaks when the dorms are typically closed. They have to overcome barriers around their financial aid applications as well as being concerned about getting enough aid to support their college journey.

What don’t people understand about the challenges faced by students in these circumstances?

I think that the general public just has a lack of understanding and find it difficult to really understand the impact that homelessness has on a student. I think it is difficult for people to consider or understand that a homeless student faces challenges even once they are in college. Having to worry about having enough food, a safe place to sleep, and a way to get to school are difficult concepts in general. It’s easier to believe that those are problems faced by other kids in other places. The problems are startling once you learn that classmates of your children are navigating these struggles on a daily basis.

What would you say to these students who do not believe it is possible to attend college?

I tell students that they have the potential and power to achieve any goal they set for themselves, because there are people ready and willing to provide them with direction and support. Most importantly, I tell them that “being homeless does not define who they are as a person and in no way defines your future.”

How do you believe, if at all, students should address the subject of homelessness or basic needs insecurity with a university they are applying to?

I believe that we should continue to empower and encourage students to advocate for themselves about what they need to be successful during their college journey. There is no shame in asking for help. That said, I also feel that it is important for the professionals charged with assisting children and young adults along their educational path to provide education and training to colleges and universities around youth homelessness and addressing homeless student unmet needs. By empowering educators and the community, we help raise the voice of advocacy for our youth.

What are some strategies students can use to address their basic needs insecurity or homelessness with universities, professors, and their peers?

I think students should try to be as up front as possible with the housing department and request year-round housing as a need. Likewise, university staff must be willing to be educated around the needs of homeless students so that they can be ready to help.

Are there organizations or resources college students who face basic needs insecurity or homelessness can connect with?

There are several resources available for homeless students to connect with when they are attending college. Schoolhouse Connection is a great resource and connection. Here in Michigan, many of our college and universities now have supports in place to help homeless students, as well as those that have aged out of the foster care system to assist with year-round housing, basic needs, and mentoring programs. These wonderful supports are in place thanks to the advocacy that has been done over the last several years both locally and nationally.

What are specific ways schools can work with students and organizations to lower the rate of students who face homelessness or basic needs insecurity while in college? What are ways universities can support students who face basic needs insecurity or homelessness?

Offering year-round campus housing would help reduce the homelessness rate among college students as well as reduce the stress and burden that many of these students feel when they are concerned about where they will sleep and what they will eat while the campus is closed.

Any final thoughts for us?

We have made huge strides over the last few years, both in Michigan and nationally, in being able to bridge resources and supports between high school and post-secondary institutions, allowing our homeless students the opportunity to achieve their academic goals. We will continue to provide education and advocacy to break down barriers and provide even more support to these vulnerable group of students.