Thursday, June 27, 2013

Homeless but not hopeless

by Tammy Brown, Community Impact Manager - Strengthening Families

When people hear the word “homeless”, images of dirty beggars and sickly addicts flash across the widescreen of their mind in bold high definition color. Embedded deep within the circuits of their brain are thoughts of criminals, prostitutes, liars, drug dealers and thieves. To those who know no better, homeless individuals are likened to an incurable, contagious disease that is to be avoided at all cost.  However, the reality of the image and issue of homelessness, for those who have not bought into the media hype or stereotype, is much different.
The real image of homelessness belongs to people just like you and me. It could be our neighbor, our co-worker or friend. Each one of us may be only one paycheck, one major illness or one life-changing event away from losing everything. And then, there are the children; the innocent victims of circumstances beyond their control.

According to Washington OSPI data, there were 2,835 students identified and served under the McKinney-Vento Act in Pierce County during 2011-2012, which is only a portion of the real number of students who are homeless. The McKinney-Vento Act defines homeless children as “individuals who lack a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence”. The Act goes on to give examples of children who would fall under this definition as:
  • Children and youth living in cars, parks, public spaces, abandoned buildings, substandard housing, bus or train stations 
  • Children and youth sharing housing due to loss of housing, economic hardship or a similar reason
  • Children and youth living in motels, hotels, trailer parks, or camp grounds due to lack of alternative accommodations
  • Children and youth living in emergency or transitional shelters
  • Children and youth abandoned in hospitals
  • Children and youth awaiting foster care placement
  • Children and youth whose primary nighttime residence is not ordinarily used as a regular sleeping accommodation (e.g. park benches, etc.)
  • Migratory children and youth living in any of the above situations

Of the 2,835 identified homeless students, 288 of those were seniors in high school, with kindergartners coming in a close second at 269. Now stop for just a moment think about the short- and long-term effects on a child who does not have a consistent or stable place to sleep at night and think about the effects being homeless has on that child’s social, emotional and cognitive progression.  Now add in other potential factors such as hunger, neglect or abuse. When you add it all up, these children have major obstacles to overcome to achieve success academically and in life.  The good news is many of these children do just that; they overcome and succeed. At a time when 30% of students do not graduate from high school, the fact that these homeless youth graduate and go on to higher post-secondary education is something to be celebrated.
For the past two years United Way of Pierce County has recognized this major achievement by providing laptops, backpacks and basic college necessities to homeless students through the Off-to-College Campaign. These students were identified by the McKinney-Vento Liaison in their school district. They confirmed the student was graduating and had firm plans to attend some type of higher post-secondary education (technical college, community college, university). A total of 31 homeless students from five school districts (Bethel, Clover Park, Puyallup, Sumner, and Tacoma) have now been recipients of this program due to the generous donations and support from the community. This is a small, but significant way our community has come together to help homeless youth and propel them into a better and brighter future.

As you lay your head on your pillow tonight, take a moment to count your blessings and remember those who may not have a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence. Remember the children. They may be homeless, but they are not hopeless. 

Together, we can provide hope and make a difference in the lives of homeless youth. Give. Advocate. Volunteer.