University of Minnesota research looks at homeless youth

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“How do you prepare someone from an unstable childhood for a stable adulthood?” asks Dr. Jarrett Gupton. This is a question that Dr. Gupton, who holds a doctoral degree in urban education policy, and two colleagues addressed in April 2008 in Los Angeles, CA, where he conducted research on homeless youth and on ways in which education can be used as a tool to combat long-term homelessness. Now Dr. Jarrett Gupton has come to Minnesota on a postdoctoral fellowship and is asking the same question.

In 2008, Gupton and colleagues compiled a comprehensive report on obstacles facing homeless youth in the LA metro area and made recommendations as to how the city and state could improve access to higher education to homeless youth. This research included statistics on the numbers and demographics of homeless youth in the Los Angeles area, but also focused on personal interviews, preformed by Gupton and colleagues, with homeless youth in the public school system. The homeless students’ experience, their needs, and their aspirations, as articulated by the students themselves, formed the focus of research and recommendations included in the report.

In 2009-2010, Dr. Gupton’s research will focus on the homeless demographics of Minnesota and how to increase access to higher education for homeless youth. Gupton hopes to conduct similar interviews and research as he did in Los Angeles, on a smaller scale, in the Minneapolis/Saint Paul area to discover what obstacles face homeless youth here. With this information, Dr. Gupton hopes his research will aid in the forming of partnerships, both between elementary to high schools with universities across the state, as well as partnerships with shelters and organizations that deal with homeless and low-income youth on the housing and human services level.

Gupton’s research may be helped by a new Wilder Research survey on homelessness in Minnesota. The Wilder survey, conducted every three years, is a comprehensive one-night survey on homelessness in Minnesota. In 2006 the Wilder survey said on any given night there were 550 to 650 homeless unaccompanied youth ages 11 to 17. Accompanied youth, children with their parents, make up about half of the homeless population within Minnesota. The 2009 Wilder survey results will be released sometime in spring 2010.

In the Twin Cities metro area, Minneapolis public schools served 5,547, and St. Paul public schools served 1,898 homeless and highly mobile youth children and youth in 2008-2009. Although Minnesota has a different urban environment than Los Angeles, many of the issues facing homeless students remain the same. Without a stable home life, educational aspirations, which are similar those of the mainstream community, can fall second in line to simply keeping your life together or addressing mental health issues.

“Many homeless youth shelters are focused on therapy, not education,” said Dr. Gupton, explaining that support systems for education, like study time or tutoring sessions, are not often found in shelters. Gupton is not necessarily looking at integrating education into shelters, which are often overstretched and understaffed, as much as integrating support systems for homeless youth into public or private education.

There are many differing ideas as to what school environment is best for homeless youth populations.

“They [homeless youth] are a diverse population with diverse ideas about education” said Gupton, whose recommendations for improving school environments for homeless youth in Los Angeles included a wide array of options from charter schools, to mainstreaming, to mentors and trained counselors that deal strictly with the youth in question throughout their high school career.

A universal problem facing homeless students is the stigma of homelessness, especially in an environment such as high school. Gupton stresses the need for confidential ways homeless students could access support systems. The homeless population needs to feel school is a safe environment to ask questions and address problems, before they will access support systems in place, explained Gupton.

The McKinney-Vento Act is the main federal legislation focused on the homeless student population. It provides easy access to enrollment and transportation, as well as requiring each school district to have a homeless student liaison. The 2008 report by Gupton and colleagues articulated that there was more to be done in implementing McKinney-Vento regulations.

The report goes explains that research is important: “The educational experiences of homeless youth, with the exception of a few studies, have rarely been the focus of research.  The vast majority of studies on homeless youth have focused on the physical or psychological aspects of homelessness from a medical perspective.”

Gupton hopes that his form of research, focused around personal interviews with homeless students, will increase knowledge of homeless students’ educational needs, and help service organizations and schools better serve the homeless student populations and increase homeless students’ access to higher education.

If you are interested in Dr. Gupton’s research, or are part of an organization serving homeless student populations, you can contact Dr. Gupton at gupton@umn.edu.