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.”