By Lisa Autz
Photo by Jacob A. Riis. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Most college students in the country are excited to leave and relax for winter and summer break. However, for students like Courtney Smith, who is earning a Master’s Degree in Public Administration at Eastern Michigan University, those days off filled her with anxiety on where she would be able to sleep at night.
“When the winter break came, I didn’t have anywhere to go,” confesses Smith. “I remember for the first Christmas break I had in college I had to go back and stay at the shelter.”
In the last four years of Smith’s life, she has moved around about seven or eight times, looking for a stable place to live throughout her academic pursuit. Smith is just one story out of approximately 550,000 unaccompanied youth under the age of 24 that are experiencing homelessness in the United States, according to the 2014 Annual Homeless Assessment Report.
Smith along with Jessie McCormick and Brandy Sincyr all faced the challenge of pursing a higher education without having a reliable home or supportive network. Now, each woman is on her way to stability and earning her degree. Because of their individual experiences, Smith, McCormick, and Sincyr are working with the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth to help others. They are advocating for the Higher Education Access and Success for Homeless and Foster Youth Act to ensure that others receive better access to the resources they need.
Smith shares with BTR her difficult journey attaining a college degree and the many facets to student homelessness she hopes this legislation will help tackle.
“Summer breaks were always hard not having a stable place to live and because of that it affected my completion rate throughout college and my financial aid and my academic pursuit in general,” explains Smith.
Photo courtesy of Courtney Smith.
Smith is from Detroit, Michigan and was adopted as a child. When family life became precarious she found herself homeless and on the verge of not completing her high school degree. Then she found the Alternative For Girls (AFG) program in Detroit, a nonprofit that helps homeless and high-risk young women find the support they need. The AFG provided her the structured fabric of shelter and communal support she feels is necessary for all youth.
“I first got involved in Alternative For Girls as a high school student because I really had no where to go,” admits Smith. “I was able to get into the transitional living program at Alternative For Girls and I was able to graduate from high school with the resources I was provided with a stable place to live and the supportive services that every young person needs.”
Now, she is on the board of directors for AFG, which she claims exemplifies how essential these programs are for giving young people leadership opportunities to become productive in society.
This support gave her the leverage to attend a small, private college in North Carolina in 2009, but without the continuous assistance of a program like AFG she found herself in an emotionally and physically volatile position in her life.
As the emotional weight grew, she found herself moving back to Michigan and transferring to Eastern Michigan University. There she found the Mentorship Access Guidance in College (MAGIC), a federally-funded program geared toward providing assistance to students that had been in foster care.
“If I would have had the MAGIC program or something similar to the program earlier while I was matriculating through college, I don’t think my journey would have been as rough as it was,” she explains.
Smith is now advocating to pass legislation that will hopefully bring more of these programs to campuses throughout the nation as well as provide better tracking mechanisms to identify student homeless youth.
“There’s no federal mandate to track the system of homeless youth in college. There’s no tracking system, so a lot of people don’t know that the problem actually exists,” describes Smith. “Getting students to self-identify is the most difficult part because a lot of people are ashamed.”
Smith realizes that the only way she was able to get the help she needed was by getting over that feeling of being ashamed.
“A lot of it is just about language,” illuminates Smith. “No one wants to feel that they are different or that they are undeserving and this is why it is such an invisible population.”
Their petition currently has over 100,000 signatures, with a goal to bring that number up to 20,000 by the end of Foster Care Month in May.
As for Smith’s future, she continues to advocate for easier access to resources so those in her former situation can experience less disruption in their path to a better life. It’s a goal that Smith is incorporating into her life’s work.
“I plan to continue to mobilize and educate people to create change within their communities as my life goal,” says Smith. “I’m not sure how it looks moving forward but I definitely think that I will continue to do this type of work for the future.”