(Photo by Flickr user Marjan Lazarevski, used under a Creative Commons license)
Advocates and service-providers came out in full force for a Philadelphia City Council hearing on youth homelessness last spring and demanded the city take action. Council did just that in late 2016 by allocating $700,000 toward creating more beds and expanding services for youth in Philadelphia’s shelter system.
According to a Pennsylvania Department of Education report on homeless students during the 2014-2015 school year, the majority of homeless children and youth across the state — 26,273 in total — aren’t in the shelter system at all. Sixty-four percent of homeless students live “doubled-up” in the homes of family or friends.
Of those 26,273 homeless children and youth, 5,764 are in Philadelphia — a “historic high” for the city, according to People’s Emergency Center’s vice president of policy, Joe Willard.
It’s the first time the number has been reported above 5,700 in the city.
In Philadelphia, the number of homeless children living doubled-up is 1,921 — “almost equal” to the 2,249 living in shelters. The ratio suggests a “greater need for prevention programs, affordable housing, and emergency housing” for homeless families in the city.
“If you look at the number of kids doubled-up versus in shelters, it suggests that family homelessness is increasing,” Willard said. “Second, if you add the two together, you’re talking 4,000 families that were homeless in 2015 — 4,000 that don’t get into the shelter system, only 1,400.”
Despite the way the population increase looks on paper, said Willard, there’s good news here. The all-time high in homeless students, he believes, is due to expanded services in schools.
“It’s because there are more counselors, nurses and social workers in the School District of Philadelphia who assist the school district with identifying youth experiencing homelessness,” he said. “That’s my conjecture.”
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As the school district continues to hire more counselors, nurses, and social workers, the city is able to better identify homeless students who were previously uncounted.
“Could it be possible,” Willard writes in a PEC policy brief, “that the School District will serve more than 6,000 children and youth this year?”
In short, yes. And it will take more than more beds to quell the storm, Willard said. Right now, families and friends of homeless families are stepping up to provide shelter. It’s a remarkable fix, albeit temporary. As for city services, though, Willard said many low-income families facing eviction can avoid homelessness through prevention programs. One example might be a program that subsidizes rent for a short period of time.
“Instead of getting them in emergency housing, you stabilize their housing right away,” he said. “That’s the idea behind prevention services. We really don’t have any program for that.