Hidden Homelessness: High School is Hard. But Imagine The Mental Toll of Experiencing Homelessness Through It. [Eric’s Story]

Hidden Homelessness: Why child, youth, and family homelessness is the crisis we cannot ignore is a series developed by SchoolHouse Connection featuring stories and voices that highlight the long-term impacts of child, youth, and family homelessness. From this first-person storytelling, we learn the ways homelessness underlies and intersects with other critical issues and therefore why this crisis requires specific, urgent, meaningful action from policymakers.

Eric P.* is 19 years old, based in Texas, navigating his senior year of high school amid a pandemic — and as if that isn’t challenging enough, he is also an Unaccompanied Homeless Youth staying with a friend for the time being. Eric has experienced various forms of homelessness since he was 5 years old, and in his Q&A, speaks to the devastating impact his experiences of homelessness have had on his mental health and the support he wishes he and other homeless youth had. Eric plans to attend a community college after graduation, and then transfer to a four-year university — a path he says is only possible because of the support of his school and educators throughout his life.

Here is Eric’s story.

*For privacy, we are keeping Eric’s last name anonymous.

What kind of support did you receive at school and in your community while experiencing homelessness? Was it helpful and is there anything you needed that you didn’t get help with?

When I was in the 3rd grade, I struggled greatly with a means of transportation. Everyday at the start of my 3rd grade year, I had to walk to the bus stop which was about a mile away. If I didn’t make it to the bus stop in time, then I had no other way of getting to school. One day, I was late to the bus stop and so I had begun walking home, but my 3rd grade teacher happened to be late getting to school as well. When she noticed me walking home, she pulled over and began talking to me. Realizing the situation I was in, she told me that she would begin taking me to school. If it wasn’t for her then I feel like I would’ve had way too many absences to move on to the next grade. This is one small example of the various teachers, counselors, and social workers who have gone the extra mile to help me throughout my life. It started with them paying attention and noticing that something was wrong, then they had to be willing to ask questions, and lastly they provided support. Educators like my third grade teacher are why I’m where I’m at today and they couldn’t do what they do without federal funding and district support to do outreach and provide adequate resources to students.

Educators like my third grade teacher are why I’m where I’m at today and they couldn’t do what they do without federal funding and district support to do outreach and provide adequate resources to students.

Did you receive any resources that came from Federal COVID funds that you know of? If not, were there needs you had or still have that aren’t being met?

To be honest, I’m not sure if the assistance I received throughout COVID was as a direct result of federal funds. I know that my school provided a laptop for me to do distance learning, but other than that I was kind of on my own. Some of the things I really needed during this time were financial assistance for basic needs like food, shelter, and clothing and honestly for my teachers to check in on me more to see how I’m doing. I think I could have also benefited from access to mental health resources as I coped with my housing and all the changes the pandemic brought.

I could have also benefited from access to mental health resources as I coped with my housing and all the changes the pandemic brought.

Can you speak more to the ways in which experiencing homelessness impacts mental health? Do you think it is important that policymakers understand that child, youth, and family homelessness is intrinsically connected to other issues — such as mental health?

Homelessness can impact anyone’s mental health in multiple ways. From my experience, I can tell you that at a young age I began to develop extreme trust issues, I was hardly ever happy, I began to feel empty and alone because everyday felt like an empty void that never ended and I felt unimportant in more than just one way. To this day, I’m still the same way because of the trauma I endured due to being homeless. I do think that it’s important for policymakers to understand that child, youth, and family homelessness is intrinsically connected to other issues.

Homelessness can impact anyone’s mental health in multiple ways.

I also think that it’s essential for them to do more than just donate to a charity or business. It’s also way more important than just learning about and understanding issues. Do something, don’t talk only about helping. Actually help. Up until now, for nearly 19 years now, I have not seen one person with power actually HELP me. I’m not talking about the people that take me in, because they actually did something, for the most part, and they weren’t required to do anything for me. I’m talking about other people that could’ve changed my life from the beginning. And I know for a fact that all homeless youth feel the same way I do. Especially about this.

What type of mental, social and emotional support did you receive during COVID-19 and what supports do you still need?

My memory of COVID-19 is foggy because I was on prescribed medication due to my ACL surgery a few days prior to the outbreak. However, most teachers I had were insensitive to the fact that I could not be fully functional enough to work on homework or test that great, due to my medication. So, due to me not being able to mentally fully function because of my medicine, I would either have to fail a class, or stop my medication and experience terrible pain in my leg, or have tremendous help on assignments. I did the last option because the first two weren’t really sitting well with me at the time. I feel like if I were given more time on assignments or just a different option, then I wouldn’t have had to have so much help that it got to where I was mentally falling behind my peers, and I could’ve had an easier time with classes like pre-cal and what not.

What is your experience with trying to access support from different services and programs? Given that you are staying with a friend currently, have you experienced challenges in being recognized as homeless?

The only real support I have received in my life is from SchoolHouse Connection. Any other support I have received in my life up to now, that was from a service or program, was easily exploited by most of my guardians.

I have not experienced challenges in being recognized as homeless by the individuals that would take me into their home. However, my peers and just the people around me would not know of my situation, and would treat me like I have a stable way of living until I explain the life I live directly to them. Then the situation would mostly turn into a pity party and I couldn’t stand it. So I just stopped trying to explain to people that I’m homeless and accept the fact that they may be insensitive sometimes but it’s because they are blissfully ignorant of my life and I would rather have it like that.

What is your “call-to-action” to support students experiencing homelessness?

I think it starts with the three most basic questions a teacher can ask a student they feel is experiencing homelessness. Those questions are, “Do you have food every night? Do you live with your parents in a house they own or rent? Do you have more than one pair of clothes?” Then once the student answers those questions with honesty, the teacher can go from there with a social worker or even by trying to help the guardians of the student in any way possible. I feel like if a teacher or principal or even a counselor had asked me those questions, then I would have lived a safer and much different life. Kids and young teens are taught by their “guardians” to not openly talk about their living environments because the “guardians” are afraid of potentially being charged with neglect, abuse, or exploitation. But, if the person asking the three questions were to assure the student that everything will be okay, then maybe, just maybe, the student will tell the truth, bringing forth positive change to their lives.

Check out the other stories:

This is hub of expertise and stories to drive solutions around children, youth, and family homelessness. It is a project of SchoolHouse Connection.