America Tonight

Growing up homeless in suburbia

In suburban and rural America, homeless youth are often invisible and isolated

At her high school in rural Maine, Sabrina Gilpatrick is a normal student. She likes her classes, does theater and has some good friends. But after the bell rings, when her peers are driving their cars back home, Gilpatrick takes a school-provided cab to a youth homeless shelter the next town over.

Gilpatrick is one of more than 1.1 million homeless students in the United States, according to a tally by the National Center for Homeless Education. Homelessness is often treated as an urban problem, even though less than half of all homeless people live in big cities. As a result, teens like Gilpatrick are less likely to be counted, and noticed. 

Abused and abandoned

Suburban and rural homeless populations are often invisible to local residents and lawmakers, experts say, so social programs are scarce and funding isn’t a priority. New Beginnings, where Gilpatrick lives, is one of the few shelters in Maine that offer youth a place to stay 24 hours a day, as opposed to just a bed at night. And it’s the only one that offers recreational and educational programs. The average young person stays here for three weeks; Gilpatrick’s last stay was three months.

“Some people come in here and they're basically a stray dog,” the 18-year-old told America Tonight. “They come in long enough to get their wounds healed and then they leave.”

Until she was 7, Gilpatrick lived with her mother, who she says was abusive to her and her sister. She then moved in with her father and stepmother, but the relationship was rocky and Gilpatrick left home when she was 15. Her story is common at a place like New Beginnings. Family conflict, including physical, sexual and emotional abuse, is the primary cause of youth homelessness.

“[The abuse] may have happened 10 years ago, but that’s going to stay with them,” said Rick Smith, the shelter coordinator. “They hit their teen years and things really fall apart. And the guardians and the people who were taking care of them just don't know where it came from, and all of a sudden they're not sure how to deal with the young person.”

Invisible homeless students

Charles Franklin, a teacher at Poland Regional High School, helps Sabrina Gilpatrick with math.
America Tonight

The neglect of homeless youth in suburban and rural swaths of the country is most dangerously apparent in schools.

“If you are a teacher in urban area, part of your everyday job is working with kids in those situations,” said Pete Miller, an associate professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who studies how schools deal with homelessness.  “That’s not the mentality in some high-performing suburban schools. Teachers aren’t prepared to deal with homeless students.”

Since the 1987 passage of the landmark McKinney-Vento Act, every school district is required to designate a homeless liaison, who is responsible for identifying homeless students and working to meet their basic needs. In large urban districts, this is often a full-time position. Some schools have more than one.

But in suburban districts, the job of homeless liaison may be just one of several roles that a teacher has. Miller said that many times the liaison has no prior experience working with these students. Some aren’t even aware that they are the liaison until an incident occurs.

And simply identifying a homeless student can be tough work at a high school, where fitting in is the ultimate goal, and many teens prefer to blend in and just get through the day.

“I didn’t interact with anybody at school, I just went to class and went home."

Austin Presley

This was certainly the case with Austin Presley, now 17, who grew up in Mobile, Ala., with an abusive mother with untreated bipolar tendencies. He remembers moving around a lot throughout his childhood, staying with his mother’s boyfriends. The unstable housing and the emotional and physical abuse started to take a bigger toll on Presley in his early teen years. He struggled with depression and suicidal thoughts.

“I didn’t interact with anybody at school, I just went to class and went home,” he said. “Looking back, I should have told my teachers because they might have been more lenient with me.”

Miller thinks schools are starting to take a more proactive role in identifying homeless students. Part of that is because of the McKinney-Vento Act, which required schools to accommodate homeless students in several ways, such as enrolling homeless children even if they lacked the right documentation, or if their families had moved.

“The McKinney-Vento Act is great. It gives some financial resources to strained places,” Miller said. “More importantly, it’s a symbol and it puts the issue on schools’ radars.”

Stuck in the suburbs

Austin Presley takes a selfie in his National Guard uniform.
Austin Presley takes a selfie in his National Guard uniform.
America Tonight

The law also requires schools to provide homeless students with free transportation – a key service in suburban and rural areas, where public transport may be lacking. Gilpatrick relies on the cab that picks her up every day at the shelter, miles away from her school.

But the free transportation stops at the school gate. On top of financial problems, this makes it almost impossible for homeless children in more spread-out or remote areas to have a healthy social life, which can contribute to feelings of isolation.

Nisa Sanchez goes to a large school in suburban North Carolina. The district is socioeconomically mixed, but Sanchez said that most of the kids come from wealthy neighborhoods. Even though she has friends, the wealth gap makes her feel left out.

“I fit in with [the students] personality-wise but when it comes to financial stuff, I don't fit in,” she said. “I don't drive and I don't have a car and they’re doing all this other stuff and I don’t have the money to do it.”

And then there are the classes themselves.

Presley said that while going through problems in his home life, focusing on school was too difficult. When he was 15, he left his mother’s place and eventually moved in with his sister. The stable housing had a huge impact on his academic performance.

“When I settled down in one place, even though there were still problems, I started doing better in school right away,” he told America Tonight. After graduation, Presley will start basic training with the Alabama Army National Guard. He plans to eventually join the Air Force like his uncle.

Gilpatrick also found it challenging to focus on school without having a steady place to live. She didn’t finish her homework and fell very behind in her classes. “It was frustrating having to do [schoolwork] and worry about where I was going to live the next day also,” she said. “I have a habit of worrying about the future.”

She’s now at a school that she feels supports her situation more, and that’s been the biggest factor in improving her grades. Last year, she completed her first full year of school and earned almost double the average number of credits.

But even when homeless children achieve success on paper, more hidden problems often persist.

Sanchez, for example, is working toward a Certified Nursing Assistant license and is determined to go to college this fall. “I’m trying to get good grades, so I’m pushing myself really hard,” she said.

But the stress has led to bouts of depression and occasional emotional breakdowns. “To be honest, I just miss my family,” she said. “The emotional support is not here anymore. I feel like giving up, because I’m missing them so much.”

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