‘Not just an urban issue:’ Lawmakers hear from experts, advocates on child homelessness in Pa. – Pennsylvania Capital-Star

During a week-long effort to recognize child and youth homelessness in Pennsylvania, lawmakers and advocates held hearings and public events to draw awareness to the issue affecting nearly 40,000 students across the Commonwealth. 

“Housing insecurity presents a unique set of educational challenges for children and youth experiencing homelessness, and we must encourage schools, communities and individuals throughout the commonwealth to plan for and support assistance programs for youths experiencing homelessness as they look to complete their education,” state Rep. Donna Bullock (D-Philadelphia), who chairs the House Children and Youth Committee, said. 

State Rep. Donna Bullock is joined by advocates raising awareness for child and youth homelessness at a press conference in the Capitol rotunda on Wednesday, Nov. 15, 2023 (Capital-Star photo by Cassie Miller).

On Wednesday morning, the Committee and members of the House Education Committee, held a joint hearing to discuss child and youth homelessness. 

“Last year, in the fiscal year 2022, the Department of Education identified 40,003 children and youth who experienced homelessness,” Joe Willard, vice president of policy at HopePHL, said, adding that “23% of those children were ages birth through five.”

Testifiers at the hearing said that the issue is not just an urban issue, it affects rural and suburban communities as well. 

“A third of the children are coming from suburban communities and another third are coming from urban communities,” Willard said, noting that 34 of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties experienced an increase in homelessness in 2022 compared to 2019, the last year of “good data” before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

At a press conference on Wednesday afternoon, state Rep. Abby Major (R-Armstrong) said that finding comprehensive solutions to youth homelessness means first understanding the extent of the issue.

“While our cities may often be the focal point of discussions on homelessness, we must acknowledge that this crisis isn’t confined to metropolitan areas. It permeates with our rural communities, too,” Major said. “… It doesn’t look like sleeping outside on the street or finding refuge in a shelter because often shelters don’t exist. But instead, like couchsurfing, between various family members or friends, many nights unsure of where you will lay your head down. This is still homelessness.”

Willard described the concept of sleeping on couches at the homes of friends and family to lawmakers as “doubling up,” adding that there has been an increase in the number of unhoused students staying with family and friends in this way rather than going to a shelter. 

“They’re not in the homeless housing shelter system,” Willard said. “This is a huge difference from the past 10-15 years when most children were identified as coming from the shelter system.” 

Experts also said that the stigma of being a child experiencing homelessness has made it difficult to detect, track, and address.  

Kate Diorio, director of pupil services at Red Lion Area School District in York County, said the stigma of homelessness deters students from seeking help. 

“When I spoke to an unaccompanied youth recently, he told me: ‘I am really more than not having a home,’” Diorio said. “‘I’m a lot of different things, and I don’t want to be known as the homeless kid.’” 

Pointing to a lack of data, resources and support services and the effect of stigmatization, advocates at Wednesday’s press conference urged lawmakers to take up bills that they say will help address youth homelessness and set students up on a path to success, such as HB 127, HB 729, HB 730, HB 1175

Collectively, the bills address a range of factors related to child homelessness, including waiving fees for driver’s licenses for homeless youth, providing a homeless youth liaison on college campuses, allowing teenagers to contract support services, and creating a pilot program for homelessness support services in higher education. 

State Rep. Ryan Bizzarro (D-Erie) sponsored HB 127 to waive driver’s license fees for youth experiencing homelessness so that they can access food, housing assistance, and attend doctors’ visits.

“It’s better to remove the barriers and increase access to services for homeless young adults,” Bizzarro said. “We’re making sure they can benefit from all the resources available to them.”

State Rep. Gina Curry (D-Delaware) shared a personal story about her family’s struggle with evictions and homelessness. Curry said she chose to tell her story because she wanted children experiencing homelessness to know what’s possible. 

“I stand here before you transparent because I want all of these students that came here today to understand that it’s possible,” Curry said. “It’s possible that this young girl, the 7-year-old girl back in Baltimore, is now standing here in front of you as a representative, elected, knowing the pain and the trauma that you go through in your life … So, I encourage you and all the representatives to stay in courage, to turn your pain into purpose.”

If you are a young person experiencing homelessness, there are resources available at PA 211.

Originally published at www.penncapital-star.com,by Cassie Miller

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