Bells are ringing, yellow buses are rolling, and parents are cheering again. Many of our students have gone Back-to-School! With the pandemic and a school year like no other, even students were more excited to return to school this year. Anticipation was higher than ever.
Students of all ages asked that most important question. What will I wear on the first day? Shopping was high on the agenda. Time for new clothes. New shoes. Probably, new backpacks. Definitely, lots of school supplies and any trendy items ensuring the envy of other classmates. Once enrolled and school began, there was even more to look forward to; new teachers, new schedules and classes, and a flurry of activities. Who wouldn’t be excited? Unfortunately, there were some students whose first day jitters were for very different reasons. Those are the students experiencing homelessness. Often when we think of the homeless population, we picture tattered adults huddling on the streets. Most likely our images don’t include children. But they are out there and are among the many students who have returned to school.
These students are far from the typical, smiling students we picture running out the door, with arms loaded, to the neighborhood bus stop. For the student experiencing homelessness, that picture is clouded and challenging. Not an image we like to carry, but the reality is that there are students who live on the streets, in vehicles, and in shelters. Imagine what their anticipation of school might have been? The questions and concerns on their minds are likely very different from other students. Where will I go to school this year? How will I get to school? Am I enrolled? What will I put for my address and phone number? Do I have any clean clothes?
Students are the innocents. They have no control over the circumstances of where they are or where they live, but the impact of being homeless will affect all aspects of their lives.
Imagine the domino effect of the following: frequent changes of schools, lack of transportation, years riddled with absences, lack of sleep, disruptions in focus and concentration, a decline in studies and proficiency, and a looming dropout possibility. The picture painted is not a pretty one, but sadly can be the reality. And, in an era of remote or hybrid instruction, these students have the added vulnerability of not having a stable place to learn during the day, or having access to a computer or Wi-Fi. Under these conditions, it’s not hard to see the difficulties that homeless students face and how the physical, psychological, and emotional damage can take its toll. Likewise, there are stressors for their parents.
“I think as a parent in a shelter with school-aged children my main thought was if my kids were being treated any differently. Were they being made fun of because the kids on the bus would see them walk into a building that wasn’t their home?”, shared Stacey, a mother of 4, who experienced homelessness for about a year before connecting with Family Promise. “It’s difficult for parents when they cannot provide the school supplies that their kids may need. Kids LOVE to school shop, and when you are strapped for money, it’s hard to feel that same excitement.”
Simple logistics can become more difficult as well. As Stacey noted, “It was stressful making sure the kids were ready for school on time – as sometimes our host churches were farther away. Moving from host church to host church was a blessing but could also be a challenge because when the kids were in a new place they wanted to play and explore, not get ready for bed and school the next day.”
The number of students experiencing homelessness is often unreliable and under-counted. The most recent available numbers provided by the Pennsylvania Education Department to the U.S. Dept. of Education for the 2018-2019 school year identified 31,000 students, or 1.8% of all students, as homeless. These pre-Covid numbers represented a 37% increase from the 2013-2014 school year, even though overall enrollment declined by 1% during the same time period. Pennsylvania schools also identified the ratio of 10.1 students experiencing homelessness per 100 school-aged children in poverty.
Whatever the number of students, the more important thing is to know they are there, and that the population is rising. We need to be aware and keep alert for the students who find themselves in these unfortunate circumstances. School staffs, students, parents, neighbors, and communities are important in bringing an awareness and the resources to help and support these students.
All students want and deserve a good education. Meeting the needs of our students experiencing homelessness is the best way to reach that goal, and to create a welcoming and safe place for them as school bells ring again.
Along with resources at school, local offices, and food and shelter programs, the National Center for Homeless Education (NCHE) (800-308-2145) or email@example.com can be of assistance.
If you or someone you know are in need of shelter, contact Family Promise of the Harrisburg Capital Region. Please call (717) 737-1100 or start the application process online here.
To volunteer or donate, please visit https://www.familypromisehcr.org/get-involved