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The Challenges Of Suburban Homelessness and Education

Guests include: Elizabeth Kneebone, Fellow at the Brookings Institution and co-author of Confronting Suburban Poverty, Chuck Keenan, administrator in Allegheny County's Bureau of Homeless Services, Kyoko Henson, a home and school visitor for the Penn Hills School District, Joe Lagana, founder and CEO of the Homeless Children's Education Fund, and homeless student Kevin Lee, winner of a national scholarship, with his mother Tamara Williams

There are nearly 20,000 homeless school age children in Pennsylvania and that’s a small portion of the 1.2 million across the country.

Local and national experts gathered in Pittsburgh on Friday for the fourth annual Homeless Education Network Summit to discuss an issue of rising concern: suburban poverty, homelessness and the challenge of education.

Since 2000, the number of poor people living in the suburbs grew by 64 percent. And today, about 16.4 million poor people are living in suburbs, compared to 13.4 million in the cities.

Allegheny County is no different.

In the Pittsburgh region alone, the suburban poverty rate increased 15.7 percent between 2000 and 2011; while the city saw a 6.3 percent increase.

Laura Saulle, the director of educational initiatives at the Homeless Children’s Education Fund (HCEF), said the face of poverty in the U.S. is changing.

“Even though there’s a lot of research now on homelessness that wasn’t there ten years ago,” she said, “we’re still battling certain stereotypes about who a homeless person is and what that definition is.”

The U.S. government spends more than $82 billion a year through more than 80 programs and organizations to fight homelessness and poverty, according to Confronting Suburban Poverty. Because of the expansive nature of suburban poverty and a lack of suburban support networks, the majority of the funding is kept in urban areas.

Without proper transportation and a lack of suburban support groups, families and students have difficulties getting jobs, counseling and education.

Three percent of Pittsburgh’s urban student population is homeless, but in many suburban areas, that number is on the rise. According to HCEF, 8 percent of students in Clairton’s school district are living in homeless conditions.

Wes Shipley, Shaler Area School District superintendent, said the hardest part is being able to find the students.

“If these students are within our district already and then become homeless, often times we’re not aware,” he said. “If they come to us and they register as homeless, it’s easier for us to get them hooked up with some services right away.”

Eileen Sharbaugh, an HCEF afterschool instructor said making teachers mindful of the problem is the first step towards educating these students.

“I think for the educators in the classroom, it’s them having an understanding that this child’s experience and this child’s situation is greatly different than the other children in the classroom,” she said. “So, they might need some additional support either during the school day or additional support outside of the school day.”

Even before The Great Recession, suburban poor population was the fastest growing group in the country. Because of millions of jobs lost in construction and manufacturing, the suburban area was severely impacted, according to Confronting Suburban Poverty.

Saulle said awareness is the key to reversing this trend.

“We need to look beyond just the shelter population or the people that we sometimes see on the streets to realize the full perspective of homelessness,” she said.