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Pittsburgh leaders show solidarity for homeless youth amidst rising numbers

Local leaders on stage hold children's drawings.
Jillian Forstadt
90.5 WESA
Local leaders stand for a three-minute moment of silence in Market Square on Tuesday. The demonstration honored the estimated 3,000 children experiencing homelessness as of the 2021-2022 school year.

More than 3,100 school-aged children in Allegheny County experienced homelessness during the 2021-2022 school year.

Local leaders joined the Homeless Children’s Education Fund (HCEF) in Downtown Pittsburgh on Tuesday for a moment of silence as a show of solidarity for the region’s homeless youth.

“If we provide the right shelter, then we can provide the type of educational assistance that they need to get to the next level,” said Mayor Ed Gainey.

HCEF estimates the number of students experiencing homelessness is up 10% from last year’s reported numbers, but CEO AJ Jefferson said it still likely undercounts the true number of students affected.

Federal law requires schools to track the number of students experiencing homelessness annually, but COVID disruptions and remote learning made it difficult for schools to do so.

The number of students Allegheny County schools identified as experiencing homelessness dipped from 3,451 children preK-12 during the 2018-2019 school year to 2,836 in 2020-2021.

“I think it will start to further equal out to pre-pandemic numbers next year,” Jefferson said.

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The demonstration in Market Square marked the start of Homeless Children’s Awareness Month. Jefferson called on educators to be vigilant, watching for signs of homelessness among their students, and diligent about connecting them with services.

“If you're in the education field, you have to keep your eyes and ears open to see if there's any change in your students' behavior, any change of them disclosing information — that change could mean that they're dealing with housing instability,” she said.

HCEF will add a new outreach coordinator this month to engage teens experiencing homelessness. Jefferson said the coordinator will help refer teens to services throughout the region.

Pittsburgh Public Schools director of student support Elena Runco said the district serves around 800 students experiencing homelessness.

“There's a lot of movement in between [district schools] and also outside of the district, back and forth,” Runco said.

PPS saw the greatest number of students experiencing homelessness during the 2021-2022 school year, with McKeesport and Woodland Hills following, according to the state’s Department of Education.

Jefferson said HCEF works with those school districts, as well as Penn Hills and Steel Valley, to identify and refer students to programs provided by the organization and its partners.

University of Pittsburgh sophomore Xavier Littlejohn said programs like those that HCEF and its partners provide helped him find level ground after experiencing housing instability during his adolescence and coming out of the foster care system.

“And not only do they help with housing, they [also] teach leadership skills. They teach us how to maintain an apartment, how to cook, clean and all of that,” Littlejohn said. “They just prepare us for the real world. Having more programs like this will help with the housing instability issues, especially with young individuals between the ages of 18 to 21.”

Jillian Forstadt is an education reporter at 90.5 WESA. Before moving to Pittsburgh, she covered affordable housing, homelessness and rural health care at WSKG Public Radio in Binghamton, New York. Her reporting has appeared on NPR’s Morning Edition.