Events last week at the state house, commemorating Hunger and Homeless Awareness Week (founded in Pennsylvania at Villanova University in 1975), were staged to remind the well-fed that the effects of poverty are endemic across the United States. Statistics furnished by Bucks County Housing Link (BCHL) show that this wealthy suburban collar county is no exception.
Of the more than 600,000 individuals living in Bucks County, “40,110 are food insecure.” And while BCHL cites the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) statistics on homelessness for the county – “463 Bucks County residents found themselves experiencing homelessness for the first time in 2022” – they refer to this as the tip of an iceberg. Records show that “850 Bucks County residents are placed on the shelter waitlist every year.” Additionally, “Nearly nineteen-thousand calls are placed on the housing link hotline by Bucks County residents experiencing a housing crisis.”
Who are these folks? That’s a question asked earlier this week by Chester County Democratic Representative Melissa Shusterman. More specifically, “Who are the kids experiencing homelessness?” Shusterman, along with her Democratic House colleagues, Representatives Donna Bullock, Mark Rozzi, and Ryan Bizzarro spent last week championing their bills to help children and youth experiencing homelessness. The bills vary in intent from waiving driver’s license fees (HB127) to enfranchising sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds to sign contracts (HB730), including leases, so that they can advocate for themselves in the absence of a caring responsible adult.
Representative Schusterman is quick to remind Pennsylvanians that many young people in need of housing, “are victims of domestic violence, sometimes from their own parents.”
What’s most important to these lawmakers? Stable housing. Two of the bills provide housing for commonwealth teens that stay in school. Citing the 2016 statistic, “36% of homeless youth traded sex for a place to stay or some other need” as evidence that addressing the youth housing issue is imperative. Shusterman sees closing the housing gap for young people enrolled in PA community colleges and state funded higher education an attainable goal. “Basically, homeless students are the invisible homeless. They’ve matriculated into school – but when there’s a break or extended summer recess, they have nowhere to go.”
Shusterman’s bill, HB1175, would task six Pennsylvania community colleges and two of the 24 PASSHE universities (which include Shippensburg, Bloomsburg, and Millersville), with providing bridge housing to students experiencing homelessness. While the specific universities and community colleges aren’t designated yet, Shusterman anticipates friendly amendments to her bill. “My bill is one out of four that will be modified to include more details. I anticipate that regions of the state with the largest community of students in need will be selected.”
While advocates touted all four of the bills from the steps in the state house rotunda last week, advocates for the Education of Children and Youth Experiencing Homelessness (ECYEH) used hunger and homelessness awareness week to remind Pennsylvanians preparing their Thanksgiving feasts that kids of all ages need stable housing.
One of PA’s ECYEH Regional coordinators, Sonia Pitzi, read a statement by an unhoused youth. A student who demonstrates the exact kinds of needs Shusterman and the others hope to meet when their bills pass. The anonymous student explained, “What do I need? I need sleep. I need to go to school. I need to be around friends. I need clean clothes. I need a freakin’ shower. I need to be a kid.”
Pitzi has long advocated for school children of all ages. Ten years ago, while on the road to help kids with nowhere to go, she conceived of and created Red Shirt Day (now a national event) – one day each year, in the middle of homeless awareness month, encouraging concerned individuals to wear red in solidarity with children and youth experiencing homelessness. More than 40,000 such kids live in Pennsylvania right now – 689 in Bucks county alone. Last week, Shusterman and others gathered in the rotunda on Red Shirt Day to discuss their ideas.
Pitzi is grateful for the increased awareness the holidays bring to the problem of youth homelessness but adds, “It’s important to think about it year-round. We put it front and center going into the holidays because this is a time of year when people think about giving. But we want people to concentrate on the needs of these kiddos in February, too. We know that families will have conversations around the dining room table. We are hoping that the topic of kids in homelessness comes up there as well.”
Between today and when any or all the proposed legislation passes, what’s out there to help Bucks County young people in need? This year alone – according to Communications Specialist Sarah Pammer – Valley Youth House, a nonprofit which helps homeless youth, has sheltered 65 unaccompanied youth aged 12 to 21. Pammer explains the homelessness services as, “an individualized, brief counseling and crisis intervention model.”
Valley Youth House’s outreach Synergy Project, “offers survival supplies (food, clothes, hygienic products, sleeping bags, tents, tarps, etc.), peer support, informal counseling, information and referral services and assistance to get off the streets.” They have served 137 young people since January 1.
If Rep. Shusterman and her colleagues have their way, many more Pennsylvania young people will have access to year-round uninterrupted housing and other supports like the ones offered by Valley Youth House on a temporary basis. Shusterman feels the essentials should be available to every student, including “Housing, food, laundry, access to technology.”
Red Shirt Day the house member reminded supporters, “These students will be our innovators, our leaders, our families and our workforce. We have to take care of them.” Shusterman expects that all four bills geared to helping students experiencing homelessness will pass this session. (Also including HB 729). “I feel very confident about this passing because my democratic colleagues are interested in addressing the needs of the people. Not some people but all people.” Adding, for kids in need of basic necessities access via higher ed could be seamless, “there should be no shame in the game.”
Bucks county residents – gathered around the Thanksgiving table this holiday – who want to help kids (or any age group) in need, may reach out to the Human Services office of Bucks County for more information on agencies in the area.