SOUTH ORANGE, NJ — Seton Hall University’s College of Education and Human Services hosted a panel on the needs of homeless students on Nov. 15, addressing the issue of student eviction and homelessness across all levels of education. “Meeting the Needs of Students and Families Experiencing Eviction and Homelessness: Opportunities for Improved Coordination among Schools, Law Enforcement & the Community” featured panel members James Walters, a retired detective sergeant; Jeanna Velechko, the principal of Rutherford’s Lincoln School; and Leo Ricketts, an SHU senior who has dealt with homelessness multiple times.
Ricketts grew up in Paterson and Newark, experiencing two periods of homelessness in his life — between the ages of 6 to 8 and again for two years beginning when he was 13.
“I know what it’s like to live in partially condemned or abandoned buildings,” he said at the panel. “When you’re in college, you can’t work to the level that you would if you were in a stable home environment.”
Ricketts is on course to graduate in December, and commutes to SHU from public housing. He described what it feels like to be evicted to the crowd gathered in the Jubilee Hall atrium.
“Sometimes you kind of know it’s coming, but a lot of times it’s a shock,” Ricketts said. “You find out you can’t live where you live anymore. It’s shock, it’s fear … and it alienates you from your peers.”
He also described hunger as another link in the chain of eviction.
“You sometimes don’t know where your next meal is coming from,” Ricketts said. He described extreme couponing as a way for those who are homeless to find a way to eat, saying that it’s not about the amount of food available; it’s the way food is distributed. “It helps with food instability. Find coupons to buy food and donate to people who need it, because that always helps.”
Velechko spoke about student homelessness from an educator’s perspective, saying that often teachers and school administrators have to look closely at a student to determine that something is wrong.
“Parents often hide, and if they don’t want to come out and tell you that something is wrong, how do you know?” she said at the event. “You have to look at: Are they coming late to school? Are they not bringing lunch? Is there a change in their demeanor? Are they not doing their homework? You have to take that additional moment to think about what’s going on.”
She also spoke about the responsibility of a school administrator to call authorities if they notice instability at home, and the challenges that come along with that.
“You have to think about the consequences of putting something in action,” Velechko said. “Sometimes foster care comes into play and the goal is not to break up a family.”
Coming from the law enforcement side, Walters addressed the process of eviction and, as a police officer, seeing its effects on families. He explained that the process of being evicted from a home is a process of law enforcement, but is also a function of the court system — landlords can be fought in court over eviction.
“A lot of stress is placed on not only the parents, but also the children,” Walters said. “The difficult thing with children is that they really don’t know what’s happening.”
Walters said that the issue of student homelessness and eviction is one that needs more attention in order for it to be solved.
“It’s about understanding,” he said. “We have to have a discussion about what’s right and wrong and remove that foundation that leaves us with empty shells. We need to start coming out of our silos and coming to the table and saying, what can we do?”
Carolyn Sattin-Bajaj, an SHU education professor, organized and moderated the panel.
“This demonstrates how we want to act as a community,” she told the News-Record at the event. “People can benefit from hearing about this. There’s a huge reverb for the community, because this is not a problem that can be solved in one sitting.”
“We have to stay focused on the humans,” Ricketts told the News-Record at the event, discussing how to address student homelessness. “And (we have to) connect with people on campus to check up on each other, and make sure that we can keep it together.”
Photos by Amanda Valentovic