When he was in eighth grade, Sajan Patel was homeless for a week.
He spent his spring break eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and living in the basement of a hostel in Washington, D.C., as part of a program with Northwestern University. After volunteering at shelters and speaking with homeless people, he better understood the nature of the problem.
"I always thought people came to that position through drugs or their own fault," he said. "But it's diseases, natural disasters, things that can really tear a person apart that can lead to homelessness. They are the most vulnerable citizens of our country."
So when Patel began his freshman year at Palm Harbor University High School, he started the Help the Homeless Program, which helps supply local shelters with necessities. But he also wanted to shine a light on homelessness among his classmates, a group known as the "invisible homeless" — unaccompanied youth who often couch-surf with friends or relatives.
Patel, now 17 and a junior, teamed up with the Pinellas County school system's Dropout Prevention Office and its Homeless Education Assistance Team, or HEAT, for the first Homeless Awareness Week at three of the county's high schools: Palm Harbor, Lakewood and Bayside.
Of the 101,000 students from pre-K through 12th grade in Pinellas, 2,071 are considered homeless, meaning they don't have a permanent, stable residence, according to the school district.
The awareness effort, launched this week, piloted the "Resilient Not Silent" campaign. Students could visit a booth during lunch and fill out a pledge form to speak up and seek help for friends who are homeless.
"We're just hoping that the kids will make a commitment to, first of all, have an ear to listen and a willingness to share the information if they have a friend or someone in the class exhibiting stress," said Althea Hudson, the school district's homeless liaison.
HEAT is able to provide a range of services — from guidance filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid for college to financial help with prom or with buying a cap and gown for graduation.
While HEAT focuses on training for homeless parents with younger children, this campaign is geared toward high school juniors and seniors. Hudson said older students tend to keep their struggles secret and don't come forward for help, fearing they will be judged. She said 129 high school seniors in the county have been identified as homeless.
"We're trying to attract teenagers because they can talk to another teenager and they will listen and confide in another teenager before they confide in an adult they don't know," Hudson said.
These were resources Tina Marie Giarla used to her advantage and eventual success as a homeless youth.
As a 13-year-old at Morgan Fitzgerald Middle School in Largo, she lost her father to drug addiction. A short time later, her mother went to prison for three years while battling the same demons. Giarla shuffled from her grandmother's one-bedroom apartment to her aunt's unstable home for three years, finally living with a friend whose family took her in.
"I scored a nice mask to hide the fact that I was going through these troubles, dealing with homelessness and sleeping on couches," she said.
As a student at Pinellas Park High School, Giarla confided in her guidance counselor and a computer science teacher who was her mentor. She was handed a HEAT pamphlet titled Are You Homeless?
"I thought, 'Wow, this is me.' "
With the help of HEAT, she received a scholarship to cover her freshman year expenses at Salem State University in Massachusetts, mostly because HEAT team members helped her fill out her FAFSA and led her to financial aid resources.
"I think if students knew what was going on and what was available to them that they would absolutely find that kind of help and that kind of trust and security in the educational system to do that," she said.
Giarla, now 21, is a junior at Salem State studying business management and political science. She helped the Unaccompanied Homeless Youth Act reach the Massachusetts House. She's also a youth advocate for the Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless.
"Speaking up and admitting to the fact I was homeless was probably one of the best things that's happened to me," she said. "It's a way of life that isn't fair to any individual, let alone a young adult who's trying to be successful."
Colleen Wright can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8913. Follow on Twitter @Colleen_Wright.