The number of homeless students attending public school in Pennsylvania increased by 18 percent between the 2012-13 and 2013-14 school year
Attendees hold up pictures at the "Stand Up for Homeless Children" event at Duquesne University in April.
By Mary Niederberger / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
The number of homeless students attending public school in Pennsylvania increased by 18 percent between the 2012-13 and 2013-14 school years — an increase more than double the national average of 8 percent, according to statistics reported by the U.S. Department of Education.
And while that one-year increase seems dramatic, even more troubling is the 94 percent increase in homeless students in the state since the start of the economic recession in the 2007-08 school year.
Translated into numbers, there were 11,756 homeless students identified in Pennsylvania in 2007-08, an amount that nearly doubled, to 22,765, by 2013-14.
Nationally, nearly 1.4 million homeless children attended the nation’s public schools in 2013-14, up from 795,054 in 2007-08.
Those numbers were the focus of a report released Monday by First Focus Campaign for Children, whose organizers are pushing for federal legislation that would broaden the number of homeless families who qualify for federal services.
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Local experts say two factors contribute to the increase in the number of homeless students reported by the state: A more focused and specific accounting of homeless students enacted by the state Department of Education four years ago and an economy that has made it difficult for families to climb out of homelessness since the economic crisis of 2008.
“You have school districts that are doing a much better job at identifying students. But we also have families who become homeless over and over again and are taking a really long time to get out,” said Nicole Anderson, coordinator for the Allegheny Intermediate Unit’s homeless education initiative, which covers a nine-county region.
The region encompasses Allegheny, Beaver, Bedford, Fayette, Fulton, Greene, Somerset, Washington and Westmoreland counties.
In the 2012-13 school year, 2,264 children, ages birth through 12th grade, were identified as homeless in Allegheny County. That total rose to 2,958 in the 2013-14 school year.
Of the 694-child increase, 550 were children ages birth to 5 years old, AIU records show. That rise may be attributed to increased outreach in early childhood and housing programs, Ms. Anderson said.
The U.S. Department of Education numbers do not include young children who are not enrolled in public school.
Currently, fewer than 20 percent of students identified as homeless by schools qualify for services provided by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, said Ed Walz, vice president of First Focus.
The federal McKinney-Vento Act, which oversees education and related services for homeless children, considers homeless any children who “lack a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence.”
That definition includes those living in homeless shelters, doubled up with others, in hotels, motels, trailer parks or campgrounds, in public spaces, cars or abandoned buildings or those awaiting foster care placement.
However, HUD’s definition of homelessness differs from that of the McKinney-Vento Act, said Bill Wolfe, executive director of the Homeless Children’s Education Fund in Pittsburgh.
“Families who are living in doubled-up situations, and that’s the majority of homeless families, are not considered homeless under HUD’s definition. So they have trouble getting the housing services.”
Mr. Walz’s group supports the proposed Homeless Children and Youth Act, which would amend the HUD definition of homelessness to include all children identified as homeless by public schools. The U.S. Senate version of the bill was introduced in January, the House bill in April. Both sit in committees.
There is some good news, of sorts, about the higher numbers reported in Pennsylvania. Because the funding formula for homeless services is based on the number of students identified, more funding has become available.
“There hasn’t been a huge funding increase at the federal level, so we are not seeing great increases. But the money we do get allows us to do more direct support for families,” Ms. Anderson said.
“So we have purchased hundreds of uniforms and backpacks and school supplies and, for high school kids, those very expensive graphing calculators.”
Mary Niederberger: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1590 or on Twitter @MaryNied.
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