Over the past few years I have been working closely with Joe Lagana, the Founder and CEO of the Homeless Children's Education Fund (HCEF), on ways the state can assist his organization in meeting the needs of homeless children throughout Pennsylvania. In 2012, legislation I authored, Senate Bill 157 (SB 157), passed the General Assembly and was signed into law, becoming Act 123, which establishes a taskforce to study the needs of homeless students in the Commonwealth. In particular, the taskforce will survey the living situations of these students, and gather data such as school attendance rates, test scores, dropout rates, and the length of homelessness. The group will also assess the relationships between shelters and schools, transportation needs, barriers to educating homeless students and the best practices for combating these barriers.
Children are considered homeless if they lack a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence according to the federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act. Nationally, there are more than 1.1 million homeless children and nearly 20,000 reside in the Commonwealth. The Pennsylvania Department of Education recently released statistics that show close to 2,300 students were considered homeless during the 2011-12 school year in the Pittsburgh region alone, a statistic I find alarming and unsettling.
Children of all ages are negatively impacted by homelessness in the areas of physical health, emotional and behavioral development, and academic success. Obstacles like frequent moves disrupt homeless children’s education, often setting them back academically three to six months as well as making these students twice as likely to repeat a grade and 60 percent more likely to drop out of school.
Recently I spoke with a reporter from WTAE-TV on the issue of homeless children and talked about the work currently being done by the Task Force for a story they ran on the evening news last week that brings attention to this issue. You can watch this report in its entirety by visiting www.wtae.com. I look forward to hearing from the Task Force upon completion of their work so we can determine what legislation will help combat this growing problem.
For over a decade HCEF has been working to ensure that children facing homelessness have access to the same educational opportunities as all children. I encourage everyone to learn more about HCEF’s efforts by visiting them online at http://www.homelessfund.org/.