Hidden Homelessness: We Cannot Ignore the Systemic Failures that Perpetuate, and Compound the Trauma of Youth Homelessness [Megan’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.

Megan Reikowski is an English Language & Federal Programs Coordinator for Lakeville Area Schools in Lakeville, Minnesota. She supports several programs that have traditionally lacked visibility or consistency in the district, including programming for multilingual learners, academically at-risk students, and students experiencing homelessness or in foster care.

In our Q&A with Megan, she speaks to her view of homelessness as a result of and perpetuated by numerous systemic failures — such as racism, xenophobia, ableism, and classism.

This is Megan’s story.

How does homelessness impact the students you work with?

Homelessness is a real and pervasive issue in Lakeville and the surrounding community, and is in stark contrast to the experiences of many. While there is currently a construction boom in our area, many families still struggle to find affordable options. Families move to the Lakeville area seeking work in the construction trades and find themselves doubled- or tripled-up because there is no affordable housing available, and yet are unwilling to seek support or identify as homeless because they are not US-born.

The pandemic has made things more difficult, as options for affordable internet and childcare are nearly nonexistent and our district was not prepared for the level of need students would have for these basic supports in order to access education. Shelters, hotels and motels, and doubled-up households were also not prepared with adequate learning spaces and internet access. Families have had to make difficult choices, including leaving safe housing and returning to situations that are unsafe for the adults or children in the home to ensure that students can continue to access online learning.

Have you seen homelessness impact specific populations of students more than others? If so, how?

While it is not new to some of us, working through an equity lens is still a challenge for many in our community, and not just in our schools. Because I work with our immigrant and migrant youth, refugees, and English learners, I see how these communities are disproportionately affected by a lack of access to affordable housing. This is both a reflection of the work we still have to do and the gaps in our community services and education. While there are many areas where spacious and well-kept single-family homes are the norm, there are places in our community that are perceived as being dedicated to these marginalized populations, and it is both amazing and unsurprising to me how quickly students from these areas learn to be ashamed of their community and living situation. When kids don’t want to talk about where they live, it’s hard to identify who is in need of more support.

Generational homelessness is also a problem — over a third of homeless parents also experienced housing loss themselves before the age of 18.

Why is it important that policymakers understand that child, youth, and family homelessness is intrinsically connected to other issues — such as systemic racism and geographic disparities?

Because the truth is important and valuable, and because “it could happen to anyone” is true, but not the whole truth. Housing loss can happen to anyone, but in my state, Black/African American adults account for 5% of the population but 37% of the homeless population. American Indian, Hispanic/Latino, and immigrant adults are also much more likely than whites to be homeless. Generational homelessness is also a problem — over a third of homeless parents also experienced housing loss themselves before the age of 18. And yet many still argue that childhood homelessness is a failing on the part of students and families and not a reflection of a system that fundamentally does not value the lived experiences of those who do not have a whole host of privileges (white, economic, ability, etc.).

The “face” of homelessness is constantly changing, and many of the children and families I work with don’t see themselves as deserving of or entitled to support.

Do you have the resources, support, and funding you need to support your students?

The “face” of homelessness is constantly changing, and many of the children and families I work with don’t see themselves as deserving of or entitled to support. In a community where homelessness is largely invisible, most see it as a problem that is inextricably linked to crime and poor choices. I have found that while many in the community celebrate and enthusiastically engage in individual philanthropy, it is more difficult to garner support for changes that make services easier for all to access without judgement or meeting a test of worthiness. I often have community members contact me around the December holidays asking if I know of a family for whom they can purchase gifts, but I also notice the significant opposition in the community to programs that ensure that the same people who benefit from their charity can keep their electricity running and access basic medical care.

I have found allies in many local organizations, however. Food pantries, churches, childcare providers and other organizations that embrace the call to meet kids and families where they are have been integral to supporting families during the pandemic.

Some are trying to bounce back with the heavy hands of racism, xenophobia, ableism, and classism pressing down on their shoulders.

What is your “call-to-action” for leaders and policymakers to support students experiencing homelessness?

Every child deserves a childhood. For many years, and now more than ever, we in education have talked about resilience. “Kids bounce back,” we say. But we never talk about the Herculean effort that “bounce” requires for some kids, or the way we expect them to invest all their energy in that effort, saving none for just being a kid. Some are trying to bounce back with the heavy hands of racism, xenophobia, ableism, and classism pressing down on their shoulders. Before we can lift those burdens we must recognize and prioritize them.

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.