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Homeless Student Studies For A Better Future

As the economy struggles to recover, some people are looking to post-secondary education to improve their skills, and land a job. That strategy can be especially difficult for students who are homeless.

It’s hard to say how many students are homeless in Oregon. But Kayla Anchell caught up with one homeless student, and has his story.

Twenty-three year-old Kyle Pillsbury is sitting in his tent hidden in the woods near Washington Park in Portland.

Kayla Anchell / OPB
The trail to Pillsbury's camp site in Washington Park.

“The middle I keep open because it’s where I lay my sleeping bags,” Pillsbury says.

He’s been living there for about three years of the five he’s been homeless. But what’s most remarkable about Pillsbury is something that’s common for many people his age: he’s going to college.

“I keep my packs down towards the bottom. One contains all of my clothing the other contains my school stuff. Makes its easier if you don’t grab the wrong backpack.”

Pillsbury received a scholarship to attend school through the Future Connect Program at Portland Community College. He’s receiving $500 this year and $500 next year for school.

Kayla Anchell / OPB
Kyle Pillsbury

The program helps students eliminate barriers to attending college. It also provides them with support once enrolled. So far Pillsbury says he hasn’t had to pay anything for his education, thanks to financial aid and scholarships.

Josh Laurie is the manager of The Future Connect Program. Laurie meets regularly with Pillsbury and says he’s known him through different programs for about four years.

“Living on the streets is not easy for anybody. And I think you have to have a certain resiliency and he has that. And that same resiliency is what is making him an excellent student now,” Laurie says.
Pillsbury says he had a turbulent childhood bouncing from foster family to foster family. He was homeless at the age of eighteen, when he says his foster parents kicked him out because he couldn’t find a job.

Pillsbury says he decided to enroll in community college because he’s had trouble finding jobs.

“All of the positions on my resume point to me being homeless. And people automatically just discard your application when they see that. I went through all of that and then I realized I need a higher education in order to get a job that’s going to last, that’s going to support me.”

Kayla Anchell / OPB

Pillsbury earned his GED in 2008 through the alternative high school at New Avenues for Youth. The organization offers programs and services for homeless youth. Pillsbury originally met Laurie at New Avenues. Laurie was working there as a teacher and coordinator of an education program.

“Our youth are having a very hard time finding employment in the economy the way it is,” says Kari Brenk, a Program Director for New Avenues. She says that Pillsbury’s situation isn’t uncommon within the program.

“They’re competing for jobs with people who have degrees for the same types of entry-level positions. We are actually refocusing a lot of our youth on post secondary for that reason and so our enrollments are continuing to rise.”

Brenk says that this last fiscal year there were 78 young people from the New Avenues program that enrolled in post secondary education. Of those 78, 50 continued on for a second term. She says money isn’t necessarily the biggest issue for homeless youth who want to attend college. Qualifying for financial aid is easy for them.

“I think our youth’s biggest barrier to being successful in post secondary really is a combination of not having the literacy numeracy skills that they need to be successful as well as having the wraparound services that are necessary to support homeless youth in college.”

Kayla Anchell / OPB
Pillsbury keeps one back pack for clothes and a separate one for school supplies.

Brenk says she doesn’t know how many New Avenues youth finish post-secondary education, because they don’t usually stay with the service that long. The Oregon University system officials say they don’t keep tabs on the number of homeless students currently enrolled either.

For Pillsbury, getting an education has been about more than giving him an edge in the job market.

“Teachers have affected my life more than anyone throughout my entire life. Specifically my English teachers because it’s always been my best class. They’ve been the biggest supports that I’ve had. I’ve had English teachers take me to their house for the holidays. I’ve had English teachers over the summer invite me over,” Pillsbury remembers. 

Pillsbury’s reading and writing teacher at PCC Cascade is Sherri Kurczewski. She found out he was homeless because of his involvement with Occupy Portland. Pillsbury briefly lived at the protesters’ camp.

“He’d come in and kind of give us the heads up of what was happening down there because he was living it. And that’s when we or I knew what was happening,” Kurczewski says.

Pillsbury says he informs each teacher individually outside class of his situation. Kurczewski says she wasn’t shocked at his revelation.

“Quite a few of the students have been in the same situation or a similar situation as him. At this campus there’s quite a few. I know we have at least one other person that has been homeless and is not anymore but has been.”

Kyle Pillsbury

Kayla Anchell / OPB

Kurczewski and Pillsbury both agree his situation can sometimes interfere with class work.

“I’ve lost several assignments due to weather damage and things like this and I’ve been given time to make them up. Albeit at a lower score but, the fact that I’m being given the chance is very nice,” Pillsbury says.

Pillsbury has received assistance from Laurie in some situations. When Pillsbury was enrolled in an online Spanish class, he didn’t have consistent access to a computer. Laurie says he would drive to PCC, to lend Pillsbury his work laptop. He says homeless students need to be especially savvy at locating resources.

“You’re figuring out what time the library opens to use that one hour, you’re figuring when the tutoring center opens at the college, you’re figuring when the library of college opens, you’re figuring out what places to go that are quiet to get your work done. And so you have to be really resourceful and resilient to do all those things. It’s not just take your work home and sit at your table and get it done, because your home could be a tent or a squat,” Laurie says.

Pillsbury says he’s had other problems in addition to not having Internet access. He’s had a couple of occasions where he missed class because he lacked the bus fare that would take him to campus. Despite this, Kurczewski describes him as a leader in her class.

“We just finished this book called The Book Thief and I’m asking questions about character and he was the first one just to kind of step up and explain why he liked one character which ultimately ended up making a whole discussion in the classroom.”

Pillsbury recently finished finals and plans on enrolling for 14 credits next term. He says he wants to major in English after he transfers from PCC to a four-year school. He wants to be a photojournalist.

“I just wanted to travel the world and take pictures and get stories from different people. So, being a journalist I think would be the best way to do that.”

Recently Pillsbury has received a laptop through the Alternative Pathways program. The program is part of the Multnomah Education Service District and assists alternative high school students.

But Pillsbury says there’s more exciting news.  He will be moving out of his tent and into an apartment. This was made possible through a scholarship from the p:ear program. The program serves homeless and transitional youth. Pillsbury will have an apartment in Portland for six months to a year, as long as he has a job and continues to do well in school.

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