PALM HARBOR — Sajan Patel, a Palm Harbor University High School junior, is on a mission to help the often undetected population of homeless students in Pinellas County schools, and to persuade his peers to join his efforts.
“I’m fortunate enough to come from a family that’s well off, and whenever I saw a homeless person I always thought it was something of their own doing that put them there,” Patel said. “But then I started seeing a lot of homeless people, and I realized it couldn’t all be drugs or alcohol that put them there. They just couldn’t get the help they deserved.”
Nearly 3,400 of the more than 101,000 prekindergarten through 12th grade students in the Pinellas public school system are known to be homeless, according to the school districts. There are undoubtedly others, but the stigma associated with homelessness, especially in affluent areas such as Palm Harbor, often keeps kids that need help from coming forward.
Researching statistics on the homeless inspired Patel to create the Help the Homeless Project in 2011. He gave presentations about available resources to homeless people and provided them with hygiene kits. Patel decided to expand his outreach this year and contacted the school district’s Homeless Education Assistance Team program to create the “Resilient, Not Silent” campaign.
During lunchtime, students at Palm Harbor, Bayside High in Clearwater and Lakewood High in St. Petersburg signed petitions vowing to help fellow students in need and talked with volunteers from Students Rights and Responsibilities, the Principal’s Multicultural Advisory Committee and the Principal’s Student Advisory Committee about ways to keep homeless students in school.
A handful of students at Palm Harbor came to the team in search of help for themselves or close friends who were homeless, said senior Rachel Taylor, 18. The students were able to give them brochures on transportation options, free meals, school supplies and even $1,500 college scholarships from the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth.
They were able to offer them heartfelt support without disdain, which in high school can sometimes be hard to come by.
“I think our student body is very active and it’s nice to see that a lot of kids would help out a friend or a stranger if they had the opportunity to or if they knew someone who needed help,” senior Bea Penalosa, 18, said, after she signed the pledge. “It’s tough because no one wants to be embarrassed or singled out, especially in schools like ours that are very privileged, so I think we do need to find more ways for students to get help anonymously.”
During the weeklong campaign, which coincided with Homeless Awareness Week from April 7-11, more than 100 students signed the pledge at Palm Harbor, and teal Resilient Not Silent wristbands and smiley-face stress balls were hot commodities around lunch tables and hallways. Whether the excitement will continue is yet to be seen, but Patel said he’s confident in his student body. Once they learn about homelessness, it’s hard not to help, said the aspiring social entrepreneur.
For Patel, that moment was an eighth grade trip with Northwestern University during which he spent several nights living as a homeless person in Washington, D.C. The group lived in the basement of a hostel, woke up at 6:30 each morning to make breakfast and lunch and then spent the day volunteering.
“There was a man with a Ph.D. who made a six-figure salary and was in Louisiana when Hurricane Katrina hit. He lost his home, became depressed and, even with his graduate degree, had a hard time getting back on his feet until he found a group willing to help him,” Patel said. “That always stuck with me — it could happen to anyone.”