Back to school: Harder when you’re homeless


As another school year begins, some kids are filled with nervous anticipation or dragged by their parents kicking and screaming to the bus stop, but others are worried about where they are going to sleep tonight. In the past year, the Twin Cities public school system has seen an increase in homeless students, due to housing foreclosures, evictions, and the recession.

Out of approximately 71,000 kids attending public school in Minneapolis and Saint Paul, an estimated 7,445 are homeless, according to the latest available data from the 2008-09 school year.

Becky Hicks, homeless liaison for Saint Paul Public Schools (SPPS), said these numbers “change everyday” and are hard to track because homeless students frequently move in and out of the district. The district doesn’t have drop-out statistics for homeless students, since enrollment records are kept only within each district and it is impossible to tell which kids have moved and which kids have stopped going to school.

Jason Siegal is a case manager in the independent living skills program at Safe Zone, a drop in and resource center for homeless and low income youth ages 14-22. Safe Zone serves around 60 kids daily in downtown St. Paul. Siegal works with youth in the program to create resumés, find housing, search for employment and attain educational goals. He said that too commonly, homeless youth fall through the cracks of the school system. 

“The educational system is so broken already that, by the time you’re 16 or 17, you really don’t understand half of what’s going on in your classes. You’re way far behind, but they’ve been passing you up through the grades anyway because they want the No Child Left Behind money and stuff like that. So school is not only a place where they’re not very interested, it’s a place where they’re actively confused and feel stupid and feel bad about themselves,” says Siegal.

Tasha, a 17-year-old high school senior from Saint Paul, attends MTS, a transitional school for homeless and low income urban youth in Minneapolis. (Her name has been changed, at her request, to protect her privacy.) Since she doesn’t always have a place to sleep, going to MTS has made it easier for Tasha to finish high school. School at MTS starts later in the day and she has class only three days a week.  If she misses a day, she can attend another session in the week.

Tasha dropped out of public school during her sophomore year, after being kicked out of her mother’s house in East Saint Paul. Between finding a place to stay for the night and finding transportation and dealing with family problems, Tasha didn’t have the energy to attend class, let alone focus on her studies.

“I failed most of my sophomore year ’cause I was so tired. If I couldn’t find a place to sleep, I couldn’t really go to school,” she said. “Or I’d end up in, like, Eden Prairie somewhere, and my school is super far and I couldn’t really get there…. It was hard enough trying to be a high school student, but people were all in my business and stuff and I don’t really like stuff like that.”

Tasha is now working on her relationship with her mother and plans on attending college in the near future. Unfortunately, her situation is not common among the homeless youth, according to Siegal. Out of the 40 kids he works with in the independent skills program, about half are in some sort of non-standard educational program, whether a charter school or a college program. Out of the general population he sees, this number is considerably lower.

“A lot of our kids get pregnant, and so that ends up being an issue,” Siegal said. “A lot of our kids don’t like having to transfer from school to school. A lot of our kids won’t be in the mainstream regular high school, they have to transfer to an alternative one or a charter school, and so they don’t go there anymore because all the friends they’ve had aren’t there. I think a bigger thing is probably income in general. You know, school doesn’t pay you and standing on the corner does. Another part of it, too, of course, is that school sucks. They don’t have anybody saying you have to go, and the truancy officer isn’t a frightening prospect.”

Getting a GED in lieu of a high school diploma can be an alluring prospect for many homeless and low income students, especially for those who don’t understand how hard the GED test really is, according to Siegal. With little hope of getting into college and making any money from their education, high school often seems to be a waste of time for students who could be working instead.

“A high school diploma doesn’t really get you a job anymore. For most of them, it doesn’t matter. McDonald’s doesn’t care if you have a high school diploma or not, and most of them with a diploma aren’t really getting a job that’s better than that. Why wouldn’t you want to drop out when you’re 15 or 16? Why would you keep going to get a thing that won’t get you a job anyway?” Siegal asked.

Jaclyn Evert (email is a journalism student at the University of Minnesota.