Making Policy Personal – Next100
Commentary   Education + Early Years

Making Policy Personal

Policy matters. Grounding it in lived experience matters. A federal education policy changed my life when I was in high school—and years later, I was able to strengthen that same policy in the Obama administration.

It’s difficult for me to say that I was formerly homeless. I mean, it’s true. I was on my own and without a home after my parents kicked me out. Years ago and miles away, the memory of their faces as they threw me out of my childhood home still sears. I remember stepping out of their front door with my backpack on and thinking… what next? Where do I even go now?

But claiming the identity of “formerly homeless” is not a straightforward matter. To most, the phrase brings up images of folks on the street, prejudices that all of us were taught to believe about homeless people at an early age. And the fact is I had a complicated childhood, one that doesn’t fit that stereotype. I didn’t experience housing instability until I was in high school—until that time I lived with my parents, who fed me, clothed me, and over all, cared for me. We went on vacations, celebrated family holidays. In many ways, I had a very blessed childhood.

And in other ways I didn’t. I was sent to reparative therapy when I was a child. Raised in a Texan family where the Holy Trinity consisted of Jesus, God, and Ronald Reagan, coming out as gay at 13 devastated my family. I almost immediately began to attend one-on-one sessions with a counselor, whose intention was to put me back on the straight and narrow (forgive the pun). I was too young to fully comprehend everything that was happening, but I knew that my parents wanted me to go, and at the end of every session, we would pray together that I would become straight.

When that didn’t take, I joined a group. It was an immersive, intensive, weekly program held at the local First Baptist Church. The group (still around today) describes itself as a program which allows men and women who have struggled with the “sinful” homosexual lifestyle to work toward spiritual wholeness. It was of course a terrible, scarring experience that amounted to child abuse, and what I endured there will haunt me for the rest of my life.

The curriculum, as it were, didn’t stick. After years of attendance, I ultimately was forced to leave the program and my home completely. On the night I left home during my senior year in high school, my parents gave me an ultimatum: to be straight and stay with them, or be gay and leave forever. I remember feeling a curious mixture of terror and heartbreak, but also relief and hope, as I walked away from my childhood home.

I remember feeling a curious mixture of terror and heartbreak, but also relief and hope, as I walked away from my childhood home.

I had a neighbor, a childhood friend, that I was able to stay with that first night, and for a few weeks after. I hitched a ride to school when someone was headed in that direction, but when no one was around or available, I didn’t go. Some days I skipped school even when I did have a ride, feeling like I had ample reason to not go to class. After the first few weeks at that neighbor’s, I bounced from place to place—relatives when they would have me, motels when they wouldn’t. I got involved in dark, dangerous stuff.

So how can I say that I was “homeless”? My parents took care of me until that night they kicked me out. I was never left hungry before then. I never visited a soup kitchen or stayed at a shelter. But ultimately, from the day I left onwards, I could only count on myself. I didn’t know where I would sleep at night. I didn’t know where my next meal would come from. All of my belongings were on my back as I wandered from house to house, room to room. I had to figure out life on my own.

A Policy That Opened the Door—and the People Who Pushed Me Through It

The McKinney–Vento Act is a piece of federal legislation that provides funding and aid for homeless students. Originally passed in 1987, the legislation was designed to ensure that homeless students have equal access to the same free, appropriate public education as provided to other children and youths. McKinney–Vento removes barriers to the identification, enrollment, and attendance of the 1.4 million homeless children and youths across the nation by providing them with access to services like Head Start and referrals to health and housing services, and by providing professional development to school personnel. It’s been reauthorized, or updated, several times, most recently in 2015 with the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, known as the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).

The average person knows next to nothing about this policy. The average homeless student knows next to nothing about it. When I became homeless, I knew nothing about it.

But a counselor at my high school did. One day late into my senior year in high school, my counselor called me into her office and asked me about how I was planning on paying for college the following year. I had a simple answer: I wasn’t going to go to college. I had just gotten a job selling shoes at the local mall and though I had taken the SAT and sent applications to colleges, I knew that I could never afford tuition at any university. At that point, I wasn’t even sure that I was going to finish high school, and I had put any idea of achieving a college degree out of my mind.

She and a number of my teachers spent the next few weeks berating me, encouraging me, wooing me, and opening doors for me to put the idea back in my mind. They took me on college visits; they told me to call every financial aid office in the state of Texas. In short, they put me—however begrudgingly—on the path to go to college. And after a few weeks, they found a way for me to pay for it, too.

The McKinney–Vento Act, since its initial passage had expanded the definition of how homeless students could be identified by districts and schools. The way the policy works is by recognizing that schools and teachers are often closest to students who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless, which it does by expanding responsibility to schools and districts in the identification of homeless students and giving them the resources they need to serve those students. The legislation requires each district to have a homeless liaison who can help to identify and serve homeless students, connecting them to appropriate services and resources.

Recognizing the inherent variability in experiences when it comes to housing instability, the policy defined homeless children and youth as individuals who were “sharing the housing of others due to loss of housing or economic hardship…; are living in motels, hotels… due to the lack of alternative accommodations”; and it defined “unaccompanied” as “… not in the physical custody of a parent or guardian”.  Students who fall under the resulting venn diagram of these two particular definitions within the policy can be identified as homeless by their liaisons, district, and school officials. This identification expands the students’ eligibility for various resources, including to federal financial aid for use in higher education—a parallel provision in the College Cost Reduction and Access Act has expanded homeless students’ access to college and university.

It was through this patchwork of regulations and policies that I was able to attend college. Together, they meant I could submit my FAFSA without my parent’s financial information, could be determined by a financial aid officer as an “independent student” through a dependency override process, and could thereby be eligible for federal financial aid—and afford to go to college.

If this were a fairy tale or a Hollywood movie, the story would end here, on a closing scene of me sighing dramatically as I drive a packed car to my university, leaving the audience with a mix of hope and pride. The truth is that even after the door to opportunity had been pried open by those dedicated public school teachers and counselors, I didn’t feel like I deserved to go. Those years of reparative therapy, and a childhood filled with rejection and erasure, had drilled into my head that even when something good came my way, any time that I felt happy, I didn’t deserve it—that in my most joyful, exuberant moments, I was doing something wrong, something that I should feel guilty for. I needed more than the opportunity: I needed people to tell me, and keep telling me, “this is for you, too.”

Fortunately, at the peak of my precarity, I found myself surrounded by smart, kind people, people who told me and kept telling me. I both could not and would not have gone to college without those people; and those people would not have been able to help me, however much they wanted to and tried, without policies in place that were responsive to my needs.

Becoming a Policymaker

As fate would have it, my receipt of McKinney–Vento aid would not be the last time I interacted with the legislation.

While I was in college, I was able to participate in an amazing internship program with the Victory Institute, through which I found myself on Capitol Hill. After I graduated and returned to D.C., I jumped at the opportunity to serve in the Obama administration at the U.S. Department of Education.

While I was there, I worked with a brilliant, dedicated team under the leadership of Secretaries Arne Duncan and John King to expand opportunity and equity across our nation. I got to work with folks on some incredible work for our nation’s kids: the department reauthorized major federal legislation, held for-profit universities accountable, and worked to protect LGBTQ+ students through issuing guidance for school districts on how to protect the rights of transgender students.

And as fate would have it, I came back to the McKinney–Vento Act. I helped draft updated regulations and guidance on the very legislation that had helped to open the door for me years before. In particular, I worked with a great team to expand the rights of homeless students, improved the identification protocols, and improved collaboration and coordination with service providers. We drafted guidance and resources for states and districts to assist them in their implementation of the law—and thus in serving homeless students, kids like me.

A Chance to Build a Life

I was not born into progressive policy, nor even into progressive politics. I grew up in a world where the rhetoric was all about pulling yourself up by your bootstraps, trickle-down economics, tribalism, and other conservative attitudes towards equity, opportunity, and belonging. I came into progressive policy over time, by working with people who are deeply committed to expanding opportunity to disenfranchised communities. I decided to pursue a career in progressive policy because it was policy that changed my life: if it had not been for the terms of a little-known law and the persistence of public school educators, I would not be where I am today. That law, and how it was designed, gave me a chance to build a life.

Ultimately, that is what progressive policy is about—giving people a chance. My work here at the Next100 is about expanding those chances.

Ultimately, that is what progressive policy is about—giving people a chance. My work here at the Next100 is about expanding those chances, and making sure everyone has as many chances as they need to build for themselves a good, peaceful, and happy life.

Resources for LGBTQ+ Homeless Youth

About the Author

Levi Bohanan Education + Early Years

Levi is an advocate for progressive child care policy and high-quality early education. Levi previously served in the Obama administration at the U.S. Department of Education, and has worked in the U.S. House of Representatives and with education nonprofits. At Next100, Levi’s work focuses on expanding access to high-quality child care and early childhood development opportunities.

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