(NEW YORK) — At 13, Levi Bohanan was homeless, fending for himself as a young, adolescent boy.
“The biggest fight every day wasn’t how I was going to survive, it was deciding whether or not I wanted to,” Bohanan, now 23, tells ABC News.
His parents kicked him out of the house because he is gay.
“Struggling to survive was a constant battle, but having your entire support system, your entire family, stripped from you so quickly and so completely — it’s an experience I will never be able to fully and accurately articulate,” Bohanan said.
Now, Bohanan is working alongside the nation’s top education experts at the U.S. Department of Education — as a special projects manager in the office of the Secretary — which issued federal guidelines Wednesday for states and school districts across the country to better serve students without a permanent home as part of federal legislation that was signed into law last year by President Obama. These guidelines will become mandatory on Oct. 1, 2016.
Homeless students are among the nation’s most vulnerable. There are about 1.3 million in the U.S., according to federal data gathered during the 2013-2014 school year.
“In my experience, this is an unprecedented effort to really shine a light on what homeless students are facing,” said Barbara Duffield, director of policy and programs at the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth, an organization working in tandem with the Department of Education.
The guidelines include prioritizing the identification of homeless students, including designating and training a “school liaison” within each district to help provide students with professional development and college readiness.
The guidelines also help ensure coordination with various groups, like law enforcement, juvenile and family courts, mental health groups, and public housing agencies.
“As a person who experienced homelessness when I was a kid, these efforts in particular strike a chord because they’re efforts that would’ve impacted me while I was in school,” Bohanan said. “These supports and many more would’ve eased some of the burdens I experienced, as I know they’ll ease some of the burdens homeless students experience now.”
It’s a subject that hits close to home not just for Bohanan, but also for his boss, Secretary of Education John B. King Jr.
“As a kid, home was a scary and unpredictable place for me and I moved around a lot after my parents passed away,” King said. “I know from my own experience and from my conversations with homeless students that school can save lives.”
According to the Department of Education, homeless students experience significant academic, social, and socio-emotional challenges, and often experience lower school achievement and increased risk of dropping out of school.
In addition, students who experience high mobility and attend many different schools over the course of their education often slip academically with each move.
This rings true for Elio Velazquez, 20, who was still at a second-grade reading level at the age of 10. He said his mother was a teenage single parent, and lost her job. They became homeless when he was just four years old and they were forced to move several times while she looked for work, shifting from the streets to various homeless shelters.
“I was the underdog my entire life,” Velazquez said. “I would sit in the hallways of my apartment building and do homework on the staircase so I had some light. And when my sister got sick, I had to miss about two weeks of school because my mom couldn’t afford to miss work. I fell behind in school.”
Of the new guidelines, Velazquez says, “I do commend the Department of Education’s effort towards resolving this issue. I think this is a great start to helping students attain a proper education without their economic background becoming a detrimental barrier to their success.”
Under the new guidelines, students who are older and have moved often will be able to receive partial credit for work they’ve completed in other schools.
“Homeless students have absences beyond their control, so they fall behind on their credits,” Duffield said. “They feel real discouragement to stay in school because they’ve fallen behind, and sometimes think, ‘why bother?'”
Velazquez struggled to thrive in a broken home on the streets of New York City, and at one point, was commuting three hours to and from school to attend classes in a more affluent neighborhood. But he too, like Bohanan, beat the odds, and eventually graduated second in his class from high school. Then, with financial assistance, he headed to Marist College in Poughkeepsie, New York, to study business, global studies, philosophy, and economics.
“Public schools have a critical, critical role in responding to these issues,” Duffield said. “Schools will see things that the community may not be able to see because homeless students really are an invisible population.”
“Education changed the course of my life,” Bohanan said. But life as a homeless student, he said, is something he will never forget.
“It’s something that I think about every day,” he said. ‘Fending for yourself day to day, not having parents at your high school graduation, not being able to share holidays with your family, that changes the way you pass through the world.”
Bohanan continued, “Every day I bring my experiences to the table and I seek to be intentional with the opportunities and access I have. It’s a constant reminder that the policies that we work on at the Department are not nebulous, theoretical, pieces that are out of touch with reality. They actually impact the lives of students every single day, and for the better.”
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