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Home: Advocacy

Advocating for Children Who Are Unstably Housed

We believe:
Communities must work collaboratively, creatively, and proactively to confront homelessness and ensure that the needs of children and teens without permanent homes are effectively met.

Click to check out our infographic!

Do you know how many children are unstably housed in Pennsylvania and what the cost to the state is for each child?

A report authored by Dr. Staci Perlman with Joe Willard and People’s Emergency Center shows that "the societal cost of childhood homelessness reaches well beyond the cost of providing housing. Examination of thirteen cost categories associated with child homelessness shows that the estimated annual marginal cost of child homelessness in Pennsylvania is $363,205,374. This averages to an annual marginal cost of approximately $40,235 per child for the 9,027 children who slept at least one night in shelter in 2011. You can read the report here.

. . . how these families face unstable housing?

Unstable housing has as many different causes as it has victims. Each family's situation is unique. A family may be displaced by fire, domestic violence, substance abuse, illness, or loss of a job. Increasing inability to make mortgage payments and foreclosures on owners of rental property are contributing to housing instability among families who never anticipated the prospect.

Too often families become unstably housed or face the prospect of unstable housing because income is insufficient to cover the basic necessities. In 2010, 30.1% of all Pennsylvanians were "just making ends meet," 13.4% "lived in poverty," and 5.9% "lived in deep poverty." That's 6,152,701 of the 12,298,955 residents of the Commonwealth. (Figures provided by a 2010 "American Community Survey" compiled by the U.S. Census Bureau.) See Christine Stone's Opinion/Perspectives essay — Poverty Threatens Our Future — in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 9/29/11

To gain a sharper understanding of the causes of homelessness beyond the economics, ponder these questions.

A parent knows it is the children who suffer most in these circumstances. As one public school liaison has said, "The stress on a child in a homeless situation is phenomenal. The stress of not knowing where they are going to be staying, whether or not they will be able to remain together, if their parents will be OK, and if they can stay in their school can really take their toll."

. . . where and how children who are unstably housed live?

Although there are occasional news stories of whole families living in cars or tents, that is not the norm. The first step for many homeless families may be moving in with relatives or friends: this is called doubling-up and the children are considered homeless by law. The U.S. Department of Education data for the 2008-09 school year showed over 66% of children and youth identified by school districts as homeless were living in doubled-up situations. Doubling-up is generally not a long-term solution.

Alternatives are the shelters and transitional living facilities in Allegheny County staffed by trained and compassionate professionals. Regrettably, all such agencies must cope with a shortage of beds and of ready funding, which is one factor leading to "shelter hopping." Dr. Ralph da Costa Nunez, President and CEO of the Institute for Children, Poverty, and Homelessness (ICPH) has said: "The answer of where to begin to reduce homelessness in America is the shelter. But it shouldn't be called a shelter. It should be called a community resource center."

. . . what children lose when they become homeless?

Read these words of author Tiny (aka Lisa Gray-Garcia) from her powerful book Criminal of Poverty: Growing Up Homeless in America: "I never developed deep attachments to any of my belongings; I was just unable to arrange or contain the things I was able to hold on to. Between the serial evictions and constant moves, nary a stuffed animal or childhood picture remained in my possession. Throughout the life of a homeless child, you lose everything; it's like going through a fire or a hurricane every day, and the little things that really matter like baby pictures, school yearbooks, and letters from important people all drift away like water from a shore." [Reprinted with the permission of the publisher of Criminal of Poverty (City Lights Foundation Books). To learn more about the book or to purchase, go to]

. . . how being unstably housed affects a child's schooling?

It's been estimated that each move of a homeless family puts the children at risk of falling some six months behind in their studies. Children in kindergarten through 3rd grade are most at risk of never catching up. It is in these grades that they are learning to read. After that, they must be able to read to learn. Clearly, the circumstances of being unstably housed has an both an immediate effect on children's classroom performance but also far-reaching consequences for their adult lives.

As the Executive Director of one of the homeless housing agencies with which HCEF
partners has said: "Unfortunately, our children are more likely to have problems in school. They move so often they cannot adjust to new schools and find themselves unable to catch up to their peers, who have a more stable home life. Without help our children will be the next homeless generation."

For a fuller understanding of the educational challenges these children and youth face, see Underperforming Schools and the Education of Vulnerable Children, by Lisa Walker and Cheryl Smithgall, a 2009 Chapin Hall study out of the University of Chicago and "How do you assign homework to a kid without a home?" published in the NEA Today Magazine for January 2010.

. . . what HCEF does to serve these children?

The Homeless Children's Education Fund was established as a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit charity in 1999.  Its mission is to serve as a voice for the homeless children of Allegheny County and to ensure that they are afforded equal access to the same educational opportunities and experiences as their peers. HCEF pursues this mission by leveraging community and governmental resources to serve the needs of children caught up in homelessness, most dramatically through

  • advocacy for the periodic renewal and strengthening of the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act
  • the establishment of Learning Centers and Resource Libraries in the facilities where the children are living
  • reading readiness programming for pre-schoolers and trained reading tutors and volunteer tutors who work with children and youth whose reading skills are below grade level
  • generous donations by individuals and community organizations to fund sound educational opportunities for these children, and
  • the Homeless Education Network advocating for systemic reform at local, state, and national levels

With these and other initiatives, HCEF has had a significant and positive impact on the lives of thousands of Allegheny County children over the years. To learn more you may wish to have a member of our volunteer Speakers Bureau address a group or event with which you are engaged. We invite you to complete this online form to let us know of your interest.

Homeless Children's Education Fund • 2020 Smallman Street, Second Floor • Pittsburgh, PA 15222
Phone (412) 562-0154 • Fax (412) 562-1109 •
The Homeless Children's Education Fund is a registered 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization with United Way Donor Option #963315.
Donations are tax deductible in accordance with IRS rules and regulations. The official registration and financial information of the Homeless
Children's Education Fund may be obtained from the Pennsylvania Department of State by calling toll free within Pennsylvania, 1-800-732-0999.
Registration does not imply endorsement.