No place to call home

For thousands of Central Pennsylvania students, the most constant space in their lives is their school. Within those walls, they know what to expect and where to find things from one day to the next.

For many students, home is also that kind of safe space. But for those who are experiencing homelessness, it’s that time outside of school that can be the most difficult. Not all students in our area have a home to call their own. And although the image of someone living on the street with all of their belongings is still the prevalent one when someone says “homeless,” the living situations of our areas homeless students are far more varied, though just as challenging.

Those who work with the issue of homelessness point out that there are many circumstances that equate with families being considered homeless. If they lack a fixed, adequate nighttime address, individuals are considered homeless, displaced or in transition.

It’s not just the person on the street; in fact, it’s rarely the person on the street. It’s families living in shelters, campgrounds, hotels, motels, cars or even doubled or tripled up with family and friends who represent the biggest percent of people in our area living without a fixed home.

And despite the continuing use of “the homeless” as a group, local experts stress that there is not a classification of people who fit that role. The mark is a moving target, able to strike in a variety of circumstances.

“Homelessness is something people are experiencing; it does not define them,” says Lisette Rivera, Site Coordinator for the Families in Transition program of the Lancaster County School District and its designated homeless liaison.

“Homelessness does not discriminate against anybody,” Rivera says. People generally become homeless because of a specific act or incident — a fire, act of nature, escape from domestic violence. Rivera says society at large still often thinks that people are homeless because “they don’t have their act together,” when, in reality, that’s not the truth.

Homelessness in Central Pennsylvania

According to the Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE), 36,823 students are experiencing homelessness in Pennsylvania; Lancaster County has the third-most — 2,684 — in that state, behind only Philadelphia and Allegheny counties. Dauphin County has 1,602 students experiencing homelessness.

The PDE is required to address and support displaced students throughout the state under the federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act. In order to accomplish this, PDE created the Education for Children and Youth Experiencing Homelessness (ECYEH) program, which ensures that the school districts are in compliance.

Kristen Hoffa is the Regional Coordinator for ECYEH Region 2, which includes Berks, Chester, Lancaster, Lebanon, Dauphin and Schuylkill counties. Hoffa, whose office is located at the Berks County Intermediate Unit, works with a small team of coordinators to support the school districts. They also work closely with each county’s homeless coalition to make sure service providers understand the educational rights of students experiencing homelessness.

“Homelessness exists in every school and community,” Hoffa says. “Many people don’t realize how easy it is to become homeless. Tragic events, job loss, accidents, house fire. [They] can happen to anyone and can result in homelessness.”

Student homelessness is often hidden, Hoffa explains, which is why the district liaisons have such an important role in identifying these students and offering support. She says that the liaisons often work behind-the-scenes to assist families so that the student can focus on school. They often partner with community agencies, churches and other non-profits to provide resources and support for these families.

Every district in Pennsylvania has a system in place for referrals if students or staff suspect a family is experiencing a problem with housing.

Although they work for the Lancaster School District, Rivera and Lindsay Gregg, the coordinator of parent involvement and Families in Transition, aim to help families in their entirety when possible. Families in Transition collects and distributes backpacks, clothes and hygiene items. Sometimes they refer families to outside agencies to help with other items, or for some training on issues of sustainability and planning. They can work with transportation issues, which are often a big problem for someone who has to move around and lacks a consistent address.

Like many across the state, new teachers and staff in Harrisburg are given information on this topic during orientation, and all staff are encouraged to look for red flags that could indicate an issue with housing. Some of those common red flags are attendance at different schools (due to having to move around), sleeping in class, hunger or hoarding food, inappropriate dress (very often, too few clothes in the winter), and tardiness or absences that could stem from having to travel a distance to get to school.

In both Harrisburg and Lancaster school districts, those who work in registration and enrollment are well-trained to look for housing issues when students and families first contact the district.

As a McKinney-Vento liaison for the Harrisburg School District, Shaundra James-Goodrum says that she is obligated to help the whole family, which can include children younger than school age, or those who are toward the end of high school. Sometimes that means helping with a cap and gown or prom dress. Sometimes it means helping to bridge the gap between high school and college, working with colleges so they understand that some of the students are coming in without the traditional home life or support systems.

James-Goodrum encourages all parents to talk with their children about these issues, taking particular note of Hunger and Homeless Awareness Week, which is observed nationwide in November. She suggests people work at a food bank and donate items to shelters or other places serving children.

“It makes people a lot more human,” she says. “Homelessness and displacement can look like you. You can come from the best of the best and end up in this situation in the blink of an eye.”

While the schools have measures in place to help students navigate a period of homelessness, even a short period of displacement can be extremely difficult. A Lancaster County clinical psychologist suggests parents and students should be aware of the way they talk about, look at and treat people in these circumstances. John Weigel, M.S., Licensed Psychologist, says that it is crucial to the long-term healthy development of students that they not be shamed for their circumstances.

“When you get a taste of that (shame) when you’re younger, that can haunt you for the rest of your lifetime,” he says. Weigel has seen often how vividly people remember as adults when they were shamed as children. The more parents talk to their children about treating people with dignity and placing value on their inherent worth and not what they have or don’t have, the better off we’ll all be, he says.

Although he can’t take credit for the concept, Weigel says he buys into the notion that negativity sticks like Velcro while positivity deflects like Teflon. People are much more likely to hold onto the negative that they hear, making it that much more damaging. He encourages everyone to choose deliberately to be more positive, but particularly so in giving encouragement to those in difficult situations. He also stresses the idea of future mindfulness — thinking about what could be the good in the future or the positive outcomes of things instead of the negative.

“We all have a story. We all live a story,” he says. “And for someone experiencing homelessness, the story doesn’t have to be ‘I’m homeless.’ Don’t define [them] by [their] lowest moment.”

Lisa Maddux resides in Boiling Springs with her husband and two daughters. In our last issue, she wrote about the rising popularity of esports.


The McKinney-Vento Act

On July 22, 1987, the Stewart B. McKinney Homelessness Act became public law, addressing homelessness in America. It was included in the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act as the McKinney-Vento Homeless Education Assistance Improvements Act of 2001.

Provisions of the Act include:

  • Homeless children have the right to attend either their original school or the school in the area in which they currently reside for the duration of their homelessness, or until the end of the school year if the family finds permanent housing.
  • Schools are to enroll immediately homeless children and unaccompanied youth, even if they are unable to produce records normally required for enrollment, such as previous academic records, medical records, proof of residency, and any other required documentation.
  • In the case where the educating district is different than the district where the student is temporarily residing, both school districts are responsible for the facilitation of transportation in the best interest of the student.
  • Immediately upon enrollment, homeless students are entitled to receive a daily, free school lunch.

A child is considered homeless if he or she is living with or without a parent:

  • In a homeless or domestic violence shelter
  • In a public or private place not designated as a regular sleeping accommodation, such as a vehicle, park, hotel, or campground
  • With relatives or friends due to lack of housing
  • Outside of his or her home as a runaway or because he/she has been forced out of the home
  • In a house for unwed mothers and has no other living accommodations
  • In any of the situations listed above as a child of a migrant family

Assistance available through the program includes:

  • Assisting with school enrollment and placement
  • Providing agency referrals for clothing, food, shelter, rent, and school supplies
  • Coordinating support services
  • Providing training on the McKinney-Vento Act
  • Increasing public awareness of homelessness



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