New Data Reveals Extent of Students Experiencing Homelessness

More and more of Pennsylvania’s school-age children were experiencing homelessness even before the pandemic, according to a newly released report by the Pennsylvania Department of Education. The study accumulates the locally reported totals of homeless children under five and those enrolled in pre-K through twelfth grade across eight regions of the commonwealth. The total for the 2018-2019 school year was 39,221, up by nearly 3,000 from the previous year. The new total is the largest number ever recorded.

“LAMPa advocates worked to see homelessness included as a factor in education funding policy, knowing the impact it has on a child’s health and learning,” said Director Tracey DePasquale. “Knowing that numbers were rising before the pandemic increases the urgency of not only attending to the immediate needs of these children and their families, but also addressing the issues underlying the increase illustrated in this report.”

A People’s Emergency Center (PEC) analysis of the report offers some notable highlights. Although the biggest headline is that the total number of school-age children who experience homelessness has increased, the more revealing discovery is that the largest reported totals come from outside of the Philadelphia area. Region 2, the greater southeastern area, reported 8,635 children compared to Philadelphia’s 7,847. Region 2’s total, though, is down from the previous year. All other regions except for region 4 (southwestern PA), saw increasing numbers.

PEC’s analysis also identifies a “1000 Club;” counties that report over 1,000 homeless students. The number of counties in the “club” has risen to eleven, up from nine. These counties include: Allegheny, Berks, Bucks, Chester, Dauphin, Delaware, Lancaster, Lehigh, Montgomery, Philadelphia, and York. These counties together represent 54% of the total number of children reported.

Even as state reports continue to document the increasing numbers of school-age children who are homeless, there are those who stress that the actual numbers are likely underreported. A recent article on a study by Research for Action, a Philadelphia-based, nonprofit education research organization, highlights the fear that the COVID-19 pandemic has worsened the crisis. “Now in the midst of COVID, there is so much evidence showing that there are likely going to be more students and families in temporary housing,” says Anna Shaw-Amoah, a policy associate with RFA.

Pennsylvania currently ranks 36th of the 50 states in reporting students experiencing homelessness (SEH). With the commonwealth reporting numbers significantly lower than the national average, it is likely that the true number of SEH is underreported. This is significant because these students often experience other, related traumas that can affect their learning, and lack sufficient support because of systemic barriers. They are often students of color, identify as LGBTQIA+, are older and forced into independence, or are parents themselves.

The Rev. Violet Little of The Welcome Church in Philadelphia, a homeless ministry of the ELCA, noted that homeless youths face re-traumatization and are showing signs of PTSD because of overexposure to COVID-19, political unrest, police shootings and racial violence. Fortunately, Little said she sees few children on the streets, but there are teenagers. According to her husband William D. Little, the former director of Youth Emergency Services, “The impact of homelessness on youth seems to decrease their ability to visualize a future; everything is in the immediate. Hope and trust diminish and grow increasingly difficult to come by the longer the situation goes on.”

To better ascertain the number of homeless students schools can ask a housing question on start-of-the-year paperwork, as well as by working with local agencies. Supporting these students is vital during the COVID-19 pandemic, and having accurate reporting is an essential first step. These students are less likely to have access to the internet, hardware, and a stable place to learn remotely during the day. They are at greater risk of lower academic achievement and higher dropout rates.

As Lutherans our faith compels us to care for the most vulnerable amongst us. Caring for people in immediate need is vital, but as the ELCA social message “Homelessness: A Renewal of Commitment” reminds us:

Equally important are the will and wisdom to keep even more children, women, and men from becoming homeless. Walking with people who are homeless includes the responsibility to prevent homelessness. We are called to be aware of and concerned for people in our midst who are vulnerable to losing their housing. Neighborhood and community initiatives are needed. Effective political and economic policies to assure housing, employment, literacy, and health services for low-income families can help people who are potentially homeless.

We are called to be advocates and work for just policies to end homelessness and support proper educational opportunities for our children. Read the latest information on Pennsylvania’s student homelessness here.

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