This month is National Homelessness Awareness Month.
Throughout the month, there were special weeks including last week’s National Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week. The week before, Nov. 5-9, was Pennsylvania Education for Youth Experiencing Homelessness Awareness Week, as declared by both the state House of Representatives and Carlisle Mayor Tim Scott.
Nov. 9 was declared “Red Shirt Day” to show solidarity with youths experiencing homelessness and their educators.
The mayoral proclamation notes that there are organizations committed to sheltering and providing assistance to those experiencing homelessness, but few of those services are specific to the needs of unaccompanied minors, and many shelters will not accept a child under the age of 18 without a parent or guardian.
Pat LaMarche has been an advocate for those experiencing homelessness, and is sponsoring a T-shirt design contest for next year’s Red Shirt Day. Entries for the design can be mailed to PO Box 914, emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org or private messaged to the Charles Bruce Foundation Facebook page. Entries can also be dropped off at the Carlisle Arts Learning Center on West Pomfret Street in Carlisle.
Q. What was “Red Shirt Day?”
A. Red Shirt Day is the brainchild of the Pennsylvania region 3 coordinator of an agency affectionately referred to as ECYEH. Say it fast, like “heck yeah.” Do we want all our kids to go to school? Heck yeah! ECYEH is short for, Education for Children and Youth Experiencing Homelessness. Sonia (Pitzi) oversees eight counties in central Pennsylvania and basically it’s her job to make sure that the McKinney-Vento Homeless Education Act is enforced throughout that region. Sonia interfaces with homeless liaisons in each school department and helps provide resources, as well as raise awareness of the problem. Sonia is a tireless advocate for the children who have to mix the considerable rigor of school with the enormous challenge of homelessness.
Q. How prevalent is the problem of homelessness among youths?
A. According to the U.S. Department of Education, during the 2016-2017 school year, 32,323 school-aged students in Pennsylvania were identified as homeless. It’s more than 1.3 million nationwide. That’s just the number of school kids. That doesn’t count their toddler and infant siblings, their parents or the rapidly growing elderly population living on the street, in shelters, in conditions unfit for human habitation, or doubled up with folks who might be dangerous or predatory.
Q. What are some of the special challenges they face?
A. These kids face things as frustrating as having no quiet place to do homework, many have nowhere to wash up or keep their clothes and other personal belongings safe. They also face enormous stigma. Kids experiencing homelessness get bullied and often learn to hide the truth of their living situation from others. They often wear the same clothes day after day, go to school without coats or appropriate footwear, and have trouble making friends. They often change schools frequently, get behind on their classwork and never invite friends home for a visit. Sadly, many kids live with complete strangers when their parents do find a place to go. They fear being loud or being annoying; not wanting their family to lose what meager shelter they have. Kids without homes are often forced to face the intolerable, and they carry a burden on their young shoulders that no kid should bear.
Q. What are key areas that have to be addressed to bring an end to homelessness among youths?
A. Unfortunately, the scope of the problem is not adequately assessed by the governmental department, Housing and Urban Development, that is charged with mitigating homelessness. People in our communities could help HUD out. There are two bills before Congress. They have bipartisan support and have been floating around D.C. waiting to be passed. The bills are SB611 in the Senate and HR1511 in the House of Representatives. If these bills passed, the definition of homelessness would be changed from HUD’s current terminology that excludes people who can afford their own costly roadside hotel room or those doubled up with mom’s uncle twice removed. HUD would adopt the Department of Education definition, which includes these two vulnerable lifestyles. And let’s face it, the poor are related to the poor. If your landlord rents you a single apartment and your son and his three kids move in with you, that landlord is not going to be happy. Often both sets of families are evicted for doubling up this way. This sort of vulnerability is incredibly difficult for children.
Q. How can people help bring attention to homelessness among youths or support programs that assist them?
A. Reach out to your school department. They can’t tell you which kids are in need, but they can tell you the need and you can close the gap. Kids might need something as simple as socks. I know Sonia’s gonna kill me, but contact Sonia Pitzi. She’s a great resource if you want to make a difference. Her email is email@example.com. Contact Hope Station. Safronia Perry and her amazing staff help lots of these kids. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org. Donate to Community CARES or the YWCA, they have shelters with lots of kids in them.
And, lastly, I travel regularly with one of the architects of the McKinney-Vento homeless education act. So I happen to have about 300 copies of the book she compiled, “60 Ways to Help a Homeless Kid.” Contact me, and I’ll give away as many copies as an individual, or organization, or school faculty thinks they can put to good use.