The ‘invisible problem’of homeless children in Bucks County
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.