The ‘in­vis­i­ble prob­lem’of home­less chil­dren in Bucks County

News-Herald (Perkasie, PA) - - FRONT PAGE - By Meghan Ross

Try to imag­ine a home­less per­son. Many may con­jure im­ages of a man on the streets of Philadel­phia beg­ging for change.

The ma­jor­ity of home­less peo­ple, how­ever, are fam­i­lies with chil­dren, ac­cord­ing to Tom Norlen, re­gional site co­or­di­na­tor for Bucks County Schools In­ter­me­di­ate Unit No. 22.

Norlen said al­most 800 home­less chil­dren live in Bucks County, and the ma­jor­ity of them live with friends, in a shel­ter or in a mo­tel.

He calls this the “in­vis­i­ble prob­lem.”

“If we drove around all day, you wouldn’t see these 800 kids. If you walked into ev­ery build­ing and ev­ery class­room, you wouldn’t see these kids. They aren’t wear­ing a badge that says, ‘I’m Mike, and I’m home­less.’ They don’t want to talk about it,” Norlen said.

Norlen said this es­ti­mate rep­re­sents chil­dren who are in kinder­garten through 12th grade in 13 school dis­tricts from the 2011-12 school year. It does not ac­count for chil­dren preschool aged or younger.

Emma Weisser, the home­less man­age­ment in­for­ma­tion sys­tem ad­min­is­tra­tor for Bucks County, said the 800 es­ti­mate was tal­lied in one year from three sources.

“Dur­ing our last point in time count, which is a one-night count of any­one liv­ing in an emer­gency shel­ter, tran­si­tional hous­ing fa­cil­ity for for­merly home­less per­sons or on the street, we counted about 210 chil­dren,” Weisser wrote in an email.

Weisser said that of those 210 chil­dren found, none of them were liv­ing on the street; they were in­stead in shel­ters or tran­si­tional hous­ing fa­cil­i­ties.

In an­other point in time count, 364 chil­dren were tal­lied. These chil­dren KDG EHHQ LGHQWL­fiHG EY VFKRRO VRFLDO work­ers as “dou­bled-up” — mean­ing they were liv­ing with rel­a­tives or friends.

Lastly, a street outreach pro­gram that tar­gets home­less and run­away YRUWKV LGHQWL­fiHG DERUW 180 KRPH­less or no­madic youths each year in Bucks County.

These three sources point to 754 home­less chil­dren in Bucks County.

In about 25 years, these are the high­est num­bers Norlen has seen. This may be due to bet­ter ef­forts work­ing with the dis­tricts to iden­tify chil­dren, or it may be due to the poor econ­omy, Norlen said.

,Q 1987, WKH 0F.LQQHY-VHQWR Home­less Act was passed through the Depart­ment of Ed­u­ca­tion. The leg­is­la­tion sought to im­prove the aca­demic achieve­ment of the dis­ad­van­taged.

Norlen’s job is to help dis­ad­van­taged chil­dren in Bucks County achieve that same goal.

The Bucks County Home­less Chil­dren’s Ini­tia­tive, the pro­gram that re­ceives fund­ing from the fed­eral gov­ern­ment be­cause of the McKin­neyVento Home­less Act, helps chil­dren to not only en­roll in school but also to al­low them to par­tic­i­pate fully in nor­mal school ac­tiv­i­ties. If a child needs school sup­plies or wants a year­book RU nHHGV PRnHy IRU D fiHOG trip, the ini­tia­tive helps with that. Pro­vid­ing kids with these sup­plies gives them a sense of sta­bil­ity, Norlen said.

Norlen hears from a va­ri­ety of peo­ple — nurses, guid­ance coun­selors, home­less li­aisons, shel­ter man­agers, peo­ple host­ing home­less peo­ple and par­ents of home­less chil­dren.

“It’s a lot of prob­lem solv­ing. And lis­ten­ing and en­cour­ag­ing,” Norlen said.

His main ob­jec­tive is not WR finG SHUPDnHnW KRPHV for peo­ple, but to give re­fer­rals to peo­ple for the best pos­si­ble places and to fo­cus on the ed­u­ca­tion of chil­dren.

When Norlen talks to par­ents on the phone, he of­ten says to them, “Try not to think of your­self as alone.”

He tells them to put to­gether a team of peo­ple on their side. This list may in­clude friends, fam­ily, guid­ance coun­selors, the school dis­trict or Norlen him­self. He also tells them to ask around for ad­vice and talk to peo­ple so that they don’t feel de­pressed or lose hope.

Many peo­ple left their homes to stay with rel­a­tives or friends who had power last week in the wake of Hur­ri­cane Sandy, but for some, this is a nor­mal oc­cur­rence. The ma­jor­ity of those who finG WKHPVHOYHV KRPHOHVV seek out friends and fam­ily and “dou­ble-down” in their homes, Norlen said.

He said about V0 per­cent of home­less peo­ple choose be­tween three op­tions: dou­bling-down, find­ing a shel­ter or liv­ing in a mo­tel.

Many fam­i­lies can only stay in their friends’ or rel­a­tives’ homes for a lim­ited time, and liv­ing in a mo­tel is ex­pen­sive.

This leaves the shel­ter op­tion, which many fam­i­lies re­sist. Norlen en­cour­ages fam­i­lies to put their names on the wait­ing list just in case they don’t have other op­tions.

It may take six, seven or even 12 months from the time a home­less per­son puts his or her name down on a wait­ing list un­til he or she can en­ter the shel­ter, ac­cord­ing to Norlen.

Norlen said there is only one emer­gency shel­ter in Bucks County: the Bucks County Hous­ing Shel­ter in Le­vit­town, which can house 85 peo­ple. Other shel­ters do ex­ist, but they are not emer­gency shel­ters.

Bucks County also is­sues Code Blue alerts, which means that when the tem­per­a­ture falls to 20 de­grees or lower, peo­ple with­out hous­ing can stay overnight in cer­tain churches who par­tic­i­pate in the Code Blue pro­gram.

Pen­nridge School Board mem­ber Peter var­nell pre­sented the es­ti­mate of 800 home­less chil­dren to the board at its meet­ing Oct. 22.

“It’s sort of stun­ning when you see the num­bers,” var­nell said dur­ing a phone call later.

var­nell said he was es­pe­cially sur­prised, con­sid­er­ing that there are a large num­ber RI “UHODWLYHOy DIfluHnW” SHR­ple in the area.

“We live in a tremen­dously gen­er­ous county,” Norlen said. “There are so many things that are done throughout the year, es­pe­cially around Christ­mas and Thanks­giv­ing.”

Norlen em­pha­sized, how­ever, that home­less­ness is a year-round re­al­ity, not tied to nat­u­ral dis­as­ters or the hol­i­day sea­son. Norlen sug­gested giv­ing gas cards and store cards in other months as well, so that peo­ple can meet their ba­sic needs year­round.

He also sug­gested teach­ing chil­dren about less for­tu­nate peo­ple by start­ing a “Give-AwayBag.” If a fam­ily can af­ford it, par­ents can pick up a cou­ple items from the store each week and ac­com­pany their chil­dren to a lo­cal food pantry.

“They will start to see that other peo­ple of­ten have to de­pend on the gen­eros­ity of oth­ers to help them get by,” Norlen said.

Norlen said he would like to raise aware­ness about the home­less pop­u­la­tion and to throw out the idea that home­less peo­ple are just those on the streets.

With more aware­ness, the Bucks County Home­less Chil­dren’s Ini­tia­tive may be able to com­bat the “in­vis­i­ble prob­lem.”

For more in­for­ma­tion, visit the Bucks County In­ter­me­di­ate Unit’s web­site at www3.buck­siu.org/do­main/2.

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