Educational Experiences of Hidden Homeless Teenagers: Living Doubled-Up
reviewed by Robert Bickel - April 07, 2014
Title: Educational Experiences of Hidden Homeless Teenagers: Living Doubled-Up
Author(s): Ronald E. Hallett
Publisher: Routledge, New York
ISBN: 0415893739, Pages: 160, Year: 2011
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Ronald Halletts book Educational Experiences of Hidden Homeless Teenagers, while not without merit, is disappointing in a variety of important ways. The title, in a formallegal sense, is not problematic, but as a practical matter it is quite misleading. Halletts hidden homeless teenagers are situated quite differently from the homeless as that term is commonly used and understood. In fact they are not homeless at all. Using a contingency incorporated into the currently operative version of the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, Hallett focuses on adolescent high school students who are housed in doubled-up fashion, meaning that one or more familial groups, because of economic hardship, has sought refuge in the same dwelling as another. McKinney-Vento now defines doubled-up students as homeless (DeTota, 2012). The same adolescents, however, are not classified as homeless by other federal legislation such as the Homeless Emergency Assistance and Rapid Transition to Housing Act (DeTota, 2012).
Hallett acknowledges that the adolescents he studied did not think of themselves as homeless or otherwise unconventional, and that they were not subjected to the spirit-breaking stress and lethal misadventures that are everyday threats to those who actually live on the streets. Furthermore, Halletts account makes abundantly clear that Mckinney-Vento is routinely ignored by school administrative personnel. In addition, adults occupying parental roles are typically ignorant of the material resources and less-restrictive regulations made available by McKinney-Vento for removing obstacles to educational achievement posed by homelessness, in whatever form. Moreover, Hallett understands that doubling-up sometimes has a cultural or other non-economic provenance. In short, while Halletts research is worth doing, it seems reasonable to surmise that, whatever his intention, a rarely invoked federal statue lent his work a good deal of cachet, interest, and importance that otherwise would have been missing. Halletts book is undeniably about homeless high school students as McKinney-Vento is currently written, but in my view it tells us little or nothing about homelessness as adolescents actually live it.
Ethnographic research on the lives and social circumstances of four high school students gives empirical content to Educational Experiences of Hidden Homeless Teenagers. We see how they live, day to day, with the deprivations and cruel precariousness of urban poverty. In the world that we share, that condition is an increasingly commonplace outrage.
On the other hand, someone wanting to make the perverse case that economically deprived high school students dont really have it so bad, might use Halletts ethnographic work to illustrate that claim. No one was going hungry. No one had inadequate clothing. Everyone had a safe place to sleep and access to indoor sanitation facilities. The adults provided a paycheck-to-paycheck level of subsistence, and some worked two jobs. Its a tribute to their perseverance that the adolescents who depended on them didnt have it a lot tougher. They live in a terribly unfair world, but things could be much worse than they are.
Beyond that, it has become increasingly commonplace to argue that the damage done by poverty can be substantially mitigated for high school students and others who are sufficiently resilient. Ive participated in an evaluation of a program intended to enhance the resilience of girls in a West Virginia middle school. The programs objective was to enhance early adolescent girls self-esteem, thereby bolstering their ability to use schooling as a way to improve their future prospects. The program seemed to me to be hopelessly ineffective, but the existence of contextual and educational opportunities that may enable students to surpass the usual expectations of those living in similarly devalued circumstances provides the basis for what Hallett means by resilience. The author contends that his use of strength-based resiliency theory rather than a conventional deficit model allows us to see and make use of often-overlooked ameliorating factors and educational policies instituted to counter the debilitating effects of poverty.
Hallett, no doubt, is right in taking to task researchers and policy makers who focus exclusively on deficiencies in the lives of materially impoverished students. However, anyone who has read Annette Lareaus Home Advantage (2000) and Unequal Childhoods (2003), or Jeanne Anyons Ghetto Schooling (1997) will recognize how difficult it is for less advantaged families and students to find and make use of protective factors to counter the risks imposed by poverty. Though the books just cited deal with different grade levels and student ages than Halletts work, they seem quite pertinent, especially given the current emphasis on the early years of a students life and education as providing a foundation for making best use of later opportunities.
Conceptually, Hallett makes a useful distinction between households that give rise to a genuine merger of two or more households into one usefully unified group, as opposed to those where families remain separate and sometimes are adversarial. While Im sure that the former arrangement is preferable for promoting educational attainment, Halletts ethnographic work does not constitute a strong case for this claim.
When all is said and done, the consequences of doubling-up as a form of homelessness seem a good deal less pernicious than one might imagine. Of the four students studied, two graduated from high school, and a third was on track to graduate, hampered by her schools lack of a guidance counselor. One enrolled at the University of California-Riverside and another started a degree program at an unidentified institution in the California State System. Only one became submerged in what gave evidence of being a sad replication of life in the poverty in which he was born.
Hallett is correct in anticipating that the most successful students will be those who make best use of opportunities for social networking with knowledgeable and well positioned friends and mentors, and that they will make best use of school resources, such as extra-curricular activities. The more important question of why some make the most of their circumstances while others do not is difficult to answer. Differences in doubled-up family structure appear to have little to do with it, but it seems safe to assume that merged and harmonious households are in various ways beneficial.
I realize that this review is largely unfavorable and that I may have inadvertently given short-shrift to the merits of Halletts research. I suspect that my expectations for this book were unduly elevated by its unfortunate title, contrasted with the substance that the author provided.
Anyon, J. (1997) Ghetto Schooling: A Political Economy of Urban Educational Reform. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.
DeTota, M. (2112) Definitions and Counts of Doubling Up. Columbus, OH: Public Policy Capstone, Department of Political Science, Ohio State University.
Lareau, A. (2000) Home Advantage. Lanham, M. D.: Rowman & Littlefield.
Lareau, A. (2003) Unequal Childhoods. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.