From the office of State Sen. Wayne Fontana: Homlessness in children is on the rise

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The number of children experiencing homelessness is on the rise. In Allegheny County, the number of children receiving homeless services increased more than 38 percent to 875 in January 2009. The average age of these children is 7.5 years old.

The report for 2010 is expected to show a further increase — children experiencing homelessness are now the fastest growing segment of the homeless population. In the nine-county region served by the Allegheny County Intermediate Unit’s Homeless Children’s Initiative, the number of students experiencing homelessness increased by 64 percent to 2,146 students in the 2008-09 school year. Across Pennsylvania, an estimated 12,438 children experiencing homelessness were enrolled in our schools during the 2008-09 school year. Nationwide, the number of children experiencing homelessness enrolled in school districts has grown by approximately 17 percent.

With all of the changes in their lives, there needs to be attention given to the continuity of the education of these children. That is why I am proud to announce that Senate Bill 157, legislation calling for the creation of a Task Force on Homeless Children’s Education, has been introduced in the senate and referred to the Senate Education Committee for consideration. The bill, jointly sponsored by myself and Senator Pippy, boasts another 21 senators as co-sponsors reflecting bi-partisan support of the effort. It is expected to be considered by the committee in early February.

The 17-member task force created by the legislation would be charged with conducting a study of the homeless child population in the commonwealth and their educational needs. The bill calls on the Department of Education to develop the surveys necessary for obtaining the information and to identify not only the numbers, but also the length of homelessness, number of episodes of homelessness, living situations, ages and grade levels, school attendance rates and gaps in enrollment, access to services and after school programs and the causes and signs of homelessness.

Perhaps more importantly, the legislation charges the task force with assessing what barriers exist and stand in the way of serving the needs of children; identifying successful strategies for serving homeless students; targeting strategies for informing parents, students and school districts of the educational services available to homeless children; and finding best practices used in other states to educate homeless students.

From that information, the task force will issue a report that includes recommendations on how the Commonwealth can use this data and information to improve educational opportunities for homeless children in Pennsylvania.

We must act now. The sooner such legislation is enacted, the sooner we can begin identifying ways to protect these children, ensure that they have access to education and services at their most vulnerable times and position the Commonwealth to become a leader in the advocacy for the provision of services to these children.

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