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North Hills Monthly

How Does the Homeless Children’s Education Fund Ensure that Kids in Unstable Living Environments Can Still Succeed?

Jul 30, 2015 01:33PM ● By Hilary Daninhirsch
Bill Wolfe
While many children face challenges in school, children who are homeless face even larger obstacles when it comes to getting a good education. The Homeless Children’s Education Fund (HCEF) works to ensure that these kids don’t fall through the cracks by providing resources to help them until their families are able to secure more stable living arrangements. Bill Wolfe is the executive director of the organization.

North Hills Monthly Magazine (NHMM): What is the mission of the Homeless Children’s Education Fund?
Bill Wolfe: It is to provide children who are experiencing homelessness equal access to educational opportunities so that they can stay current with their peers. In the 2013-14 school year, 2,985 children were identified as homeless here in our community.

NHMM: Has the number of homeless children in our area changed over the years, or has the population remained stable?
Wolfe: The number has continued to increase over the last decade, about 6 to 8 percent each year. A couple of factors contribute to that: Because of federal law, school districts are more aware, so the counting and identification of these kids is getting better. But there is also an actual increase in the numbers as well.

NHMM: Do you think that the 2,985 figure might actually be higher? Are there homeless children who go uncounted?
Wolfe: Yes; most experts who track these types of things believe that this is a significantly under-reported number. There are many people who are homeless who do not report themselves as homeless and actually hide from it. There is still a rumor on the street that if a family becomes homeless and has young kids, Children and Youth Services (CYS) will come and take their kids away. This is not true. CYS will work with that family to help them to find a place to live; the only way that the children are taken away is if there is neglect or abuse of a child. There is also still a lot of stigma associated with being homeless.

NHMM: Where do some of these homeless children live?
Wolfe: Under federal law, the definition of homelessness is anyone who does not have a stable fixed location to sleep each night. The categories include families living in a shelter or families who, because of a life-changing event, have to go and live with relatives—that is called doubling up. There are also families that are living night to night in motels and hotels; families living in their cars; families living in campgrounds or in buildings not suitable for human habitat. All of those categories are covered here in Allegheny County.

NHMM: Do homeless children receive the same educational opportunities as other children?
Wolfe: Most homeless situations require that the children have to change school districts because they are moving from one location to another. On average, there are three to four moves that a family makes before they get back into a stable living environment. There is a gap—many times children are out of school for multiple weeks because of a homeless event and lack of transportation to the school. National studies show that a child who experiences homelessness falls four to six months behind in the educational process for each move that has to be made.

NHMM: Are children who experience homelessness likely to graduate from high school?
Wolfe: They are four times less likely to graduate unless they receive this educational support.

NHMM: How does the HCEF work to provide these children with extra educational opportunities?
Wolfe: We work with 27 homeless shelters throughout Allegheny County. We’ve built learning centers in 12 of those shelters, which is a classroom where we’ve put computers and cubicles, a library of books, and a library of software, so that when the kids come home, they have a place to go to study and work on the computers if necessary. There is Internet access for them to do that. We also provide educational support in the way of books, materials, tutors and mentors to all 27 of those shelters.

We run after-school programs, where we pay an educational consultant to work with children who are behind in reading or math to help them get back to where they need to be. We supplement that with volunteers who work with the kids one-on-one to help them get their homework done. They also become mentors for these children to help them continue to understand the importance of an education. We also provide educational enrichment programs in art, science, and cultural issues, and work to get the parents engaged in the educational process as well.

NHMM: What about school supplies?
Wolfe: In August, we will deliver 2,500 backpacks, so that every kid will have a brand new backpack to go to school with on the first day. Each backpack will be stuffed with age-appropriate educational materials.

NHMM: Do you receive any help from the community?
Wolfe: Yes. We are a private nonprofit, meaning that we get no government funding at all. We raise the money to support the organization through personal donations, fundraising events, corporate donations and foundation grants. A significant supporter is Young Brothers Tae Kwon Do, whose owner, Grand Master Kong, committed to raising $100,000 for the HCEF over a five-year period. He’s three years into it, and has raised $66,000.

NHMM: Are you seeing positive results from the children who have benefited from HCEF’s services?
Wolfe: We’ve just awarded five $2,500 scholarships to students who experienced homelessness during the K-12 period and have successfully graduated from high school and are now moving on to some postsecondary type of education.