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On Road to College, Homeless Youth Persevere

Amanda Nolan
Amanda Nolan, one of the featured speaker at GRASP's 2014 gala, kept her high school GPA at 3.8 and above, despite her family's experience with homelessness. She is currently studying at John Tyler Community College. (Photo: Catherine Komp)

Across Virginia, thousands of students live in unstable housing situations, making it difficult to stay in school, graduate and enter college. In part two of our series on homelessness, Virginia Currents producer Catherine Komp looks at some of the support systems helping youth who don’t have a place to call home.

Learn More: Find more information about Change the World RVA and GRASP, which is offering free financial aid counseling at public libraries. Visit their Facebook page for details or call (804) 527-7772. Project HOPE at the College of William and Mary coordinates support for children and youth in public schools. If you are a family or an individual facing homelessness, the following resources are available: HomeAgain, shelter and rapid rehousing: (804) 358-7747; CARITAS, shelter: 804-887-1577 St. Joseph's Villa, rapid rehousing: 804-553-3200; Housing Families First (formerly Hilliard House) shelter and rapid rehousing: (804) 236-5800; YWCA (for domestic violence): (804) 643-6761; Homeward(coordinating agency): (804) 343-2045; Virginia Supportive Housing (veteran's families): (804)788-6825; and Commonwealth Catholic Charities emergency needs): (804) 285-5900.


In many ways, Amanda Nolan was a typical teenager: her favorite color was pink, she listened to Selena Gomez and she loved school, especially her math and oceanography classes. But Nolan also was dealing with a heavy issue: she and her family were homeless.

Amanda Nolan: I tried to keep my mind off where we were, even though it was tough, even though it was right in front of my face.

Economic instability forced the Nolans to move in with relatives and then, they stayed in a series of hotels for more than a year.

Amanda Nolan: I did a lot of things to occupy my mind so I wouldn’t fall too deep in depression where I would try to commit suicide. So I wanted to stay from that because I knew I had so much to live for, and I just had hope and faith that things will get better.

Crammed into a small space with her parents, sister, a dog and two turtles, sometimes with little food to eat, Amanda Nolan used school to keep her grounded.

Amanda Nolan: I had to keep my grades up, that was the only thing I could take pride in because I didn’t have everything else that a normal teenager has.

Despite the stress of her family’s situation and transferring to five different high schools, Amanda Nolan maintained GPAs of 3.8 and above.

Amanda Nolan: I’ve always loved education, I used that to drive me because if I have an education, then I can get a job, if I have degrees, I can get a job and a house, I can have all I need and all I desire because I’ve accomplished and worked hard so much and it will benefit me in the end.

During Nolan’s senior year, the family moved into a home with discounted rent. They still grappled to pay the bills, but began discovering resources in the community. One of those was the non-profit group GRASP, The Great Aspirations Scholarship Program, which helped the Nolans navigate the financial aid system as Amanda applied to John Tyler Community College. At the organization’s annual gala last Fall, Amanda Nolan was a guest speaker. Before the event, she said was a bit nervous, but ready to publicly share her experiences with homelessness for the first time.

Amanda Nolan: We’ve never told anyone outside of our family or friends, so it will be a big thing for me. Usually when I talk about it I shake a lot because I get flashbacks...but I think it will be okay, we’ve overcome that so we’re a lot stronger now.

(Applause, Nolan speech)

Nolan: My mother and I were first introduced to a GRASP advisor at Clover Hill High School during my senior year there. It came at a time in our lives when we were homeless and living in a hotel. My sophomore, junior and part of my senior year were very challenging for me economically and socially...

With her family beaming from a front row table, Amanda took the stage, telling the crowd that the financial support and advising from GRASP played a critical role in her entering college.

Nolan: I learned to take control of my future by developing a thorough plan to ensure stability and maintain self-confidence. I will be successful, I will continue to prosper in my career because I have an attitude of excellence.

Amanda Nolan is on track to finish her Associates Degree in Math and Secondary Education this year and she plans to transfer to a four year college to study psychology. But the future’s uncertain for many other youth. At least 18,000 public school students in Virginia are homeless, including 1,000 in Richmond, according to Virginia Department of Education data compiled by Project HOPE at the College of William and Mary. The majority are doubled-up with relatives or friends, and living in hotels and shelters. Several hundred are unsheltered, defined as living in substandard housing like cars, campgrounds and abandoned buildings. These young people face greater physical, mental and emotional health issues and are more likely to miss school and dropout. Two new initiatives are aiming to change that by empowering homeless youth to develop policy solutions and helping them develop strong networks of community support.

Natalie May: This room is almost entirely made up of donations…

On the second floor of Richmond’s Boulevard United Methodist Church, Change the World RVA Director Natalie May walks through the inviting space that welcomes about a dozen homeless youth each week.

May: The students come in every Monday, we set up relatively healthy after school snacks in here and the kids can unwind and catch up...

There are shelves of donated books, school supplies and essentials like comforters and toilet paper. Downstairs is fully stocked pantry and a newly decorated classroom is used for group tutoring, peer support and guest speakers.

May: We really work hard to help every student get adults and even a like minded peer group to be cheerleaders and really encourage them when they hit a rough spot.

Change the World RVA started organically a few years ago, when May was asked to mentor a homeless senior preparing to enter college. May says she began to see there was a big need to provide homeless youth with practical help, like preparing for college and transportation to work and school, but also to build networks of support.

May: If you think about all the things people did for you when you were in college or if you put children through college, little bumps in the road like moving into the dorm, getting your things physically there, furnishing your dorm, what if you have a bad roommate, fail a midterm, fail two midterms, you can’t afford your books, your financial aid doesn’t come until October and what are you going to do for food between now and then. All those little things can derail these students, so we try to address these needs. Our volunteers take them to college, unpack things in their dorm, take them shopping for their dorms, we help them financially when we can, but really it’s just being this community of caring adults that really want these kids to succeed.

May has coordinated dozens of volunteers who provide rides, cook casseroles and send birthday cards to the students. Some even open up their homes.

May: And to have a student live with a family until they graduate from high school or over the breaks, just gives them a real foundation of stability and love, it really is about love, just showing that we really care about you and love you and want you to succeed and be happy and self sufficient.

Some of May’s students are also helping create solutions to homelessness. They joined a larger team of homeless youth, facilitated by VCU School of Social Work Professor Alex Wagaman, on a six month long research project.

Alex Wagaman: The cool thing about that project is many of the youth identified some really common issues that most of them do not have family who will support them or their family literally cannot support them, they can barely support themselves, and that was a real common link.

Supported by St. Joseph’s Villa and Change the World RVA, the participants learned research methods, conducted focus groups with service providers and interviewed other homeless youth.

Wagaman: The project itself was really about them beginning to define the problem. We spent lots of time talking about how they wanted to define homelessness and unstable housing, because they wanted to kind of reject particularly the federal definition because it didn’t include them in many cases. They developed a map of how they saw this issue impacting the community, what the causes were in their opinion and what changes needed to happen.

After analyzing their data, the team identified seven recommendations, including redefining homelessness to include youth and their unique experiences; developing transitional housing programs for youth; improving training for service providers; establishing a permanent youth advisory group; increasing access to transportation and addressing barriers to affordable housing.

Wagaman: One of the huge issues both with this population and other populations I work with and do research on is they’re invisibalized a lot and so engaging them in definiting issue and deciding what the research questions are creates a level of visibility and inclusiveness that we would have completely missed.

Wagaman hopes to secure funding to continue the group’s work and present the findings to more stakeholders in the community, including state officials working to end homelessness.

(Ambient: Nolan house)

Back at the Nolan house, Amanda walks into her room, the bright, comfortable and private space she dreamed about when her family was living in hotels.

Amanda Nolan: Here’s my Instagram...

At her desk, she pulls up her Instagram account which she uses as a platform to combat bullying and provide encouragement to other youth.

Nolan: It’s called A Reaching Hand, I thought of that name when we were living in the hotel and I just thought of when you’re reaching for something you’re reaching to give, to help.

Despite their hardships, Nolan and the youth working with Professor Wagaman and Change the World RVA, want to give back. They recognize their experiences could lead to positive social change.

Nolan: I’m just ready to move forward and use all of our gifts that we have and use all of our skills that we have to change the world, because so many people committing suicide, so many people don’t have hope, and I feel that what I have, I can share with the world, I can share with the youth generation. I don’t know everything, but based on what I’ve gone through, I can encourage other people.

For Virginia Currents, this is Catherine Komp, WCVE News.