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Charter school students to give testimony at candlelight vigil to support homeless youth
By: Monica Scott
November 20, 2013

GRAND RAPIDS, MI — Homeless students from a new charter high school targeting that population and other at-risk youth will share their stories Thursday, Nov. 21, when the school hosts its first annual candlelight vigil in support of homeless kids.

Covenant House Academy Grand Rapids, 50 Antoine St. SW, opened its doors in July and around 40 of its 200 students, age 16 to 22, are homeless. School leaders want the public to join them in lighting a candle of hope and tour the school.

"It is our shared responsibility as a community to shed light on the overall issue of youth homelessness," said Sam Joseph, executive director of Detroit-based Covenant House Michigan. "We want to raise awareness about the needs of homeless young people in our midst.

"It will be a very powerful experience to hear these students give testimony about their life experience."

Covenant House, which strives to be a voice for homeless youth, has “houses” in 22 cities throughout the United States, Canada, and Latin America. The vigil will coincide with others across the country. National Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week ends Saturday, Nov. 24.

The Grand Rapids charter, authorized by Grand Valley State University, is a public school run by Youth Vision Solutions, a nonprofit Detroit-based management company. There are three sister academies in Detroit that have a shelter component, which is a longterm goal for the Grand Rapids site.

Today, Nov. 20, residents can get a first-hand look at The Bridge, a youth shelter and counseling program at Arbor Circle. Through an interactive tour alongside a youth, the agency says you will gain an awareness of youth homelessness in the community and learn how to be a part of the solution.

There are 301 homeless students enrolled in GRPS's classrooms this fall among a total population of more than 17,000 students. Last year, there were more than 2,000 students classified as homeless in Kent County schools.

Grand Rapids Superintendent Teresa Weatherall Neall and Mayor George Heartwell will speak at the vigil. The majority of the students at Covenant, which draws students from throughout Kent County, are former GRPS students recommended by Neal so they could receive the additional services the school provides to graduate.

The McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act defines homelessness as "individuals who lack a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence. The definition includes children and youth who are, for example, sharing the housing with others due economic hardship, living in shelters, cars or public spaces. Each district school has a homeless liaison.

The state receives about $2.4 million in federal aid for its more than 31,000 homeless students.

"The candlelight vigil is an opportunity for the public to stand together with Covenant House Michigan to shed light on the overall issue of youth homelessness," said Joseph, who said the school works with community partners to meet the needs of students.

The most recent state and local homeless youth figures won't be available from the state until January.

Educators and advocates for homeless children and youth say they face unique and multiple barriers to education that include:

• High mobility resulting in lack of school stability and educational continuity

• Being unable to meet enrollment requirements such as proof of residency, legal guardianship, school and health records.

• Lack of school supplies and clothing.

• Poor health, and mental health issues.

Covenant leaders with share a Children's Bill of Rights at the vigil, scheduled from 6 to 7 p.m.

Monica Scott is the Grand Rapids K-12 education writer. Email her at and follow her on Twitter @MScottGR or Facebook

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