Formerly Homeless Youth Remember Compassionate Advocates

For most of us, home is sanctuary. At the end of the day, it is the place where we close the door, lick our wounds, relax and play, and enjoy our evening meal with loved ones. We sleep in warm beds and rise the next morning to shower, clothe ourselves, grab breakfast, and leave for work, happy to return later in the day to our safe haven.   

Not everyone has such refuge, and for many individuals, the rituals of life are different from ours and may not include a comforting meal or warm shower. For some individuals, limited resources make it impossible to afford rent or a mortgage. For others, home is not a shelter at all; it’s a place of neglect, betrayal, even assault.

When children are involved, the situation is especially distressing, as adults may not have sufficient resources to feed and clothe their children, cannot offer safe places for children to play, and may be too exhausted from searching for basic resources to meet children’s other needs. In some cases, children are removed from the family and placed with foster families or, occasionally in the case of adolescents, in residential facilities. There are hardships for the children, for sure, but fortunately many homeless youth are strong and resilient, appreciative of supportive adults, and motivated to achieve in school.

Seth Morones, UNC senior studying Sociology and Social Issues and advised by Dr. David Musick, is one of these resilient young people. Seth is using his experience as having been homeless himself in his research on interpersonal relationships for homeless youth. Specifically, he is exploring the types of relationships that assist homeless youth in successfully transitioning into a post-secondary educational setting.   

Seth explains the motivation behind his research, “My experiences as a homeless youth are what drove my interest in completing this research. I really saw that the relationships that I had created helped guide me in gaining access to college opportunities, hence my being here [at UNC] now. I also believe in the importance of helping our nation’s at-risk population apply for college... Could it be that a simple connection is what is most needed?” 

Seth interviewed 6 college students who, at some point before college, experienced an out-of-home placement, thus qualifying as independent students. Interviews focused on students’ experiences working with others in getting into college and were semi-structured, containing a few planned questions and many impromptu follow-up probes. Seth initially considered the formal mentoring model as a possible way to explain how homeless youth gain access to higher educational opportunities, as it has proven to be successful generally for supporting individuals in an at-risk population. However, he found homeless youth do not always have adequate access to structured mentoring opportunities (as occurs in prearranged programs, such as the Boys and Girls Club). In fact, the most beneficial relationships for the students he interviewed were developed with adults in less formal situations, including with adults at school, in the community, and through personal connections. Each of these relationships offered both practical and personal support, which helped improve individual confidence and nurtured needed skills to navigate entry into college.

Seth’s personal experiences as a homeless youth convinced him that relationships could be a key component in access to higher education. He reflected, “I deeply valued the connections I built with my case worker and the members of the staff at the group home I lived at. My hopes are that, from my research, people can see the benefit of assisting others, but also the importance of building positive and functional relationships with disadvantaged youth who aspire to a successful life… And now, I have contributed something to a community that I was once a part of, and which is heavily overlooked.”

Going through the research process helped Seth discover his passion for assisting others to gain an education. He knew first-hand what it felt like to be left behind, and the research process helped him strengthen his own voice as a scholar. He has enjoyed having the opportunity to share his research and recently presented at the National Conference of Undergraduate Research. Seth has also shared his work with administrators at the Colorado Department of Education. He notes, “It was an incredible journey to grow to a place where I was appreciated. I learned that I could do it!”

Seth looks forward to attending graduate school to study educational policy in urban and higher education. He concludes, “I am passionate about helping others; and I am equally passionate about providing resources to others... I would love the opportunity to help others achieve their goals and create new ones as they continue to transform their dreams into realities.”