By Emily Olsen
Jayme Robinson became homeless when she was a senior in high school.
“My mom threw me a bag with two shirts and two pair of pants. She was like, ‘You have to go,’” she said.
Robinson, now 21, said she was kicked out of her family’s home in Chicago because of her sexual orientation. After Robinson left, she moved in with her paternal grandmother whom she didn’t know very well.
Her grandmother was recovering from breast cancer and didn’t have the means to support her. So Robinson became “doubled up,” a term the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services uses for individuals who rely on friends or extended family for housing.
But Robinson loved school and going to college was crucial. She knew it was a path to stable housing, a job on campus and a good education.
“I would be in the computer lab in the college room all day,” said Robinson. “During my lunch period, after school. It became really important to me that I went off to college.”
Robinson said she applied to around 30 to 40 schools to ensure she had options and a number of scholarships to help fund her education.
One of those scholarships was from the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, a nonprofit dedicated to advocating for policies to end homelessness. During the upcoming year, the scholarship program will provide a $2,500 renewable annual grant for 20 students who have succeeded in high school while coping with homelessness.
Since the scholarship program began in 2004, 13 students who won the award have graduated from college.
Robinson was one of them. She graduated from the University of Illinois at Chicago with a degree in sociology in May.
“I was able to gain a group of friends that I know I’ll have for the rest of my life,” she said. “I was able to create relationships and gain mentors. I was able to gain a sense of independence that I’ve held ever since then. And so that was college for me.”
College attendance and graduation can be a huge hurdle for kids who come from low-income families. According to a study from the University of Pennsylvania and the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education in 2013, 77 percent of people from families in the highest income quartile earned at least bachelor’s degrees by the time they were 24. For those in the lowest income quartile, only 9 percent had completed at least an undergraduate degree.
The difficulty of attending college as a low-income student can even transcend how well those students do in school. A study from the National Center for Education Statistics found a student from the lowest quartile based on parents’ income and education with the very top scores in math exams in high school had the same likelihood of graduating from college as a student from the top quartile with only average scores.
Since its founding, the Coalition for the Homeless has focused on ensuring homeless students are able to access education between preschool and 12th grade.
The coalition expanded its focus to college at the behest of Patricia Rivera, at the time director of what is now the Students in Temporary Living Situations program within Chicago Public Schools.
Trying to start a scholarship program, Rivera faced bureaucratic obstacles within the Chicago Public Schools.
“We realized that once students were finished with high school and looking on to college, there were a lot of barriers and challenges, including financial,” said Patricia Nix-Hodes, director of the Law Project at the coalition.
She argues the problem is more than just money. Nix-Hodes said many of the students they work with are unaccompanied youth, meaning they may not have someone to help them through college applications, scholarships or the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).
Though there are resources available through their high schools, Nix-Hodes said school counselors, including liaisons for homeless youth, can be stretched pretty thin.
“I think all kids need a lot of support in the application process, in the financial aid process, in deciding what is the appropriate school for me,” she said.
Anne Bowhay, director of foundation relations and media at the coalition, helps select students for the scholarship.
“They don’t always realize that what they’ve done is pretty special,” said Bowhay. “They’ve shown a lot of tenacity.”
Though the scholarship doesn’t cover the entire cost of college, Nix-Hodes said it does fill a funding gap. They may be able to live closer to school or cut down on the amount of debt they accrue.
The coalition also tries to be flexible when distributing scholarships, knowing students may have different needs.
Bowhay recalled one student who needed to use her award to cover rent, since her college didn’t provide on-campus housing for her and her child. Over the past few years, second-year students who have maintained a good grade point average have been eligible for a scholarship for a new laptop.
“We want them to finish,” said Bowhay.
Jennifer, 22, who prefers not to use her last name, has been taking post-graduate classes using some funding from the coalition.
She was the first in her family to graduate from both high school and college.
“I was technically born into homelessness,” said Jennifer.
She spent much of her childhood living in shelters, but there was a period when her family had a stable living situation. She applied for the coalition’s scholarship as the building her family lived in was going into foreclosure.
“There was points when we didn’t really have gas, and electricity would go off and on,” said Jennifer.
Jennifer said she was very involved in high school, waking up at 4:30 a.m. to get to drill team and color guard practice. She graduated fourth in her class.
She said she loved college, and her scholarship allowed her time to focus on her studies. Now she plans to go back to school to become a physician’s assistant.
“In high school, I learned who I’m not. But in college I realized who I am and who I will become,” said Jennifer.
Since graduating from UIC, Robinson has been working with the coalition as an AmeriCorps VISTA, managing the Speakers Bureau, a group of formerly homeless leaders advocating for affordable housing, access to schools and programs to help the homeless. She’s also been active in organizing for homeless youth rights within CPS. She’s also considering going back to school to become a therapist, since she knows how traumatizing becoming homeless was for her.
“Being directly impacted has made me more motivated to make change,” said Robinson.
Emily Olsen is a Masters student at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, with a specialization in social justice and investigative reporting. Follow Emily Olsen on Twitter @.