Thirteen students sat in a circle around a conference table. They all looked like typical, mature college students. Well dressed, well-spoken, and confident, you would never have guessed that they all had experienced homelessness, and some of them are still facing it today.

Moderated by Ms. Barb Dexter, the homeless education liaison for the Anchorage, Alaska School District, the students shared their personal stories about their experiences with homelessness at the recent Congressional briefing, Voices of Youth: A Discussion on Resilience, Homelessness, and Hope presented by the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth. This briefing gave an opportunity for people to hear firsthand about the problems that homeless youth in the United States face. The students came from all across the country, from different families, and from different backgrounds, but they all shared a similar sentiment: children who experience homelessness need support.

Homelessness for these students does not just mean losing their home. It means childhood stress and trauma, families falling apart, working multiple jobs while trying to attend school, and not knowing the next time they will be able to shower or eat. It means moving from place to place, multiple school absences, and sometimes even failing grades. It means becoming completely independent at a young age, and losing the ability to trust in others. But for these students, it also means never giving up, trying even harder to succeed, and refusing to slip into the stereotypes and low expectations society has for homeless youth.

When they were growing up, “home” for these students was either a foster home, a couch in a friend or family member’s apartment, or homeless shelters. But lack of family support was probably the biggest hardship that these students faced. One student’s parents were sent to prison when she was only eight years old. None of these students had strong family supports that would take care of them and encourage them. Most of the time, the family was the source of stress and trauma, and the students would try to immerse themselves in work or school to escape the negative environment. Many would work all night and go to school all day, foregoing sleep, to avoid their family situations.

“When the one causing your heartbreak and stress is your family, you have no one to go to,” one student explained.

The reason that most of these students were able to succeed and go on to college was because of the mentors they found, mostly in their high schools. Or, rather, the mentors who found them. Many of the students explained that homeless youth often do not go searching for help or guidance. Because of their rocky pasts, many have difficulty trusting others and try to be as independent and self-sufficient as possible. However, mentors in their school systems—guidance counselors, teachers—reached out to them and cared enough to not give up even when the students pushed them away.

“If you see a kid who is quiet and always pushes you away, don’t leave him alone. Go about it a different way. Always try to find a way to connect with that kid, because it can make a huge impact,” a student urged.

Other students were “guided” by their anti-heroes—their abusive parents and foster parents, and the people in their lives who had made poor decisions. These anti-heroes gave them an example of who they do not want to be.

“I told myself that I didn’t want to be anything else other than me. I don’t want to be my mother. I don’t want to be a statistic, or a stereotype. I just wanted to be me.”

Another difficulty these students faced was being able to find a balance between working and doing well in school. One student was accepted to do undergraduate stem cell research at his college, but he had to turn down the opportunity because he couldn’t afford to live on campus for the summer.

The foster care system was another major point of discussion. One student described the foster care system as her saving grace, but also a huge source of problems. As a child, she was told by her mother to never tell the social workers anything, but she finally spoke out after her mother took her younger sister to a drug house. She and her siblings were split up and she was sent to foster care where her foster mother was physically and verbally abusive. Another student explained that when children report abuse to social services, they are often left with the abusive caretaker who is not happy with the child for speaking out.

One program that is critical to providing assistance to homeless students is the McKinney-Vento Education for Homeless Children and Youth Program. This federal program ensures that homeless students are easily admitted to public schools and that they can get transportation to their original school even if they move. This is extremely important because it makes it easier for homeless students to earn credits and graduate even if they are constantly moving. However, this program does lack sufficient resources and needs more funding to make an impact on homeless youth. First Focus Campaign for Children recommends that Congress fully fund the program in order to make sure that the needs of the rising number of homeless students are met.

The discussion concluded with Dexter asking the students what they want people to understand about homelessness. Here are a few of their thoughts, in their own words:

“It’s not our fault. Don’t look down upon me. The negativity around homelessness is the worst.”

“I want people to push harder, and realize that homelessness happens to so many people. Also, there are students who don’t get good grades, and they need support and encouragement… They need someone pushing them.”

“You see us, but we’re the lucky ones. There are thousands of others for every one of us who aren’t so lucky and who need help.”

These thirteen students redefined homelessness, and painted a fuller picture of what it looks like to be a homeless student in the United States. They know the problems, their needs, and what should have been done to help them succeed. Although they faced some of the worst times, they have pushed through, and now it’s our job to listen.