Nearly 3,000 Allegheny County students are known to lack homes. A nonprofit says there are far more.
There are 2,836 children and youth in Allegheny County known to be experiencing houselessness. Leaders of the Homeless Children’s Education Fund say they believe that number is likely much higher, however, because the pandemic exacerbated housing instability.
Identifying those young people is a looming challenge for leaders of the HCEF, who say they believe housing instability is drastically underreported when it comes to children and youth.
AJ Jefferson, the executive director of the HCEF, said 70% of the nearly 3,000 already identified are doubled up in homes with relatives or friends, or couch-surfing from one person’s house to another. A small percentage of students are living on the streets, while nearly 30% are in shelters.
School districts are required to track the number of students identified as homeless under the federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act. Each district must have a homeless student liaison to identify students and provide support.
During this first week of this school year, HCEF staff have issued more emergency funds to students than in any other school year, Jefferson said Tuesday.
“[The money is] for beds because students are sleeping on the ground. For clothing, for school supplies, so on and so forth,” she said. “[Without it], they’re not going to be able to do the work that is required of them.”
The HCEF also has hired several additional staff to go into shelters, schools, parks, wherever students are to support them. The organization’s main goal is for students to graduate from high school and make post-secondary plans. Jefferson said the organization is serving around 450 students, a number she calls unsatisfyingly low.
The organization is working to raise money this month to support those students. On Monday, it held an event Downtown to draw attention to what it calls the “invisible homeless.” Those in attendance held pictures in front of their faces, drawn by students in HCEF programs to represent some of the nearly 3,000 houseless students in the county.
Michael, a former student and a recipient of HCEF funds, told the crowd that because so many children are unseen, so is the issue. (We’re using only Michael’s first name to protect his privacy.)
“You’re going to find them in college libraries where they shouldn't even be, sleeping at night. You’re going to find them in [laundromats]. You’re going to find them on the public bus system,” he said.
Michael said he found HCEF while riding public transportation. He called it a game changer. His sister had dropped out of college to help him graduate high school. The two worked to pay rent for an apartment that he said they wouldn’t be able to afford now.
“That same apartment, the last time I looked, is now $1,200 a month,” he said. “That affordability crisis is fueling even more suffering in the county than is necessary.”
Michael did graduate from high school and went on to attend an Ivy League university. He said the money he received from the HCEF was the only way he could afford even the transportation to get to the university.
He urged the crowd to donate to address the cause of housing instability and to ask civic leaders to prioritize opportunities for the youth it affects.
“Homeless youth in this county do not need you to hear their stories. And they do not need your sympathy and they do not need your pity. What they do need is an opportunity, like the opportunity that I had," he said. "What they need are the programs that allow them to build themselves up and to determine what they want to do with their lives and to give them the tools to make those decisions for themselves."
Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey said during the event that his administration is committed to creating more affordable housing in the city.
“We understand that if we don’t have affordable rent, then we can’t reduce the homeless population,” he said. “We are the greatest asset our children can have, particularly those that are homeless.”
Allegheny County Councilor Dewitt Walton said he would urge county leadership to find funding to support the HCEF.
“It is what we must do. We either pay now or we pay later. And I want to deal with an issue at a point where we can address it more effectively,” he said.
The Homeless Children’s Education Fund is hosting events throughout October, which is Homeless Children’s Awareness Month. Find more information here.