Overcoming the odds

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Despite all the odds being stacked against them, some homeless students are able to overcome obstacles and make a better life for themselves.

"I am amazed at their stories - living in a tent or sleeping in an adult homeless shelter because they are 18, or having to sleep on the couch of a stranger because they have just been separated from a parent because they've been put in jail," said Kevin Imes, director of curriculum, instruction and assessment for the Agua Fria Union High School District.

"However, in spite of it all, they rise above their circumstance. The resiliency of the human spirit is displayed every day in our schools by our homeless youths. They come to school. They learn. They grow. They survive."

Unaccompanied youths, who are children younger than 18 without a legal guardian, face the same struggles as other students - trying to do well in school, fit in and figure out what their future will look like. However, without adult guidance and support, they face those struggles while also working to provide for their own livelihood.

"We expect the world in which we live to have a certain order; to have structure centered on consistency (shelter, clean water, food) and when that order or consistency is not present it creates anxiety," Imes said. "Now imagine being a homeless youth, not only enduring the typical challenges of being a high school student trying to learn and growing up, but also living in a world that is certainly orderless and often chaotic."

About 575,000 to 1.6 million youths ages 16 to 22 are living on the streets and in shelters each year in the United States, according to the National Center on Family Homelessness. While many seem to realize education is their ticket out, the graduation rate for homeless students is less than 25 percent.

That's just high school. Homeless youths who aspire to attend college are faced with how to pay tuition, wondering who will sign important paperwork on their behalf, how to juggle long work hours and schoolwork and where they will stay when the dormitories close during holiday and summer breaks.

The College Cost Reduction and Access Act signed into law in 2007 included specific provisions designed to remove barriers for unaccompanied homeless youths to access federal financial aid.

It qualifies them as "independent students" for the purposes of filling out the forms, thereby removing the need for parental financial information and a parent signature.

Last year, the View told readers about "Henry," a former student in the Agua Fria Union High School District who rose above homelessness.

Henry became an unaccompanied homeless youth when at age 16 his parents decided to move out of the state.

"To survive, I lived day by day, hour by hour," he wrote in a scholarship essay.

As his struggles intensified, Henry began stealing for food, ate whatever he could get his hands on and used a water hose in a horse trailer to shower.

He dropped out of school and lived wherever he could, whether it was with friends, in a neighborhood tree house or simply on the streets.

Then with the help of a neighbor, Henry began to turn his life around. He enrolled in the district's alternative program and ended up graduating a semester early despite having to fit three years of high school into one.

Henry won a national scholarship for $1,000 when he wrote an essay about his life's struggles and triumphs. He enrolled in an 18-month college program and is scheduled to graduate next May, said Robyn Jacobs, former special projects manager for the Agua Fria district.

"He's doing very well, and has been going along with his life," she said.

Emily McCann can be reached by e-mail at emccann@westvalleyview.com.

Emily McCann
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