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Local groups working to find ways to help increasing number of homeless youth in Pennsylvania

PITTSBURGH — Youth homelessness has been on the rise in Pennsylvania.

Last year, it hit a new record — with more than 40,000 children in the state considered homeless.

Now, lawmakers are working to make changes while local support groups are finding new ways to help these kids.

“I would say the most difficult part of being homeless would be having a support system,” says Rae Arrington-Epperson, “There were times when we had to sleep in the car... but there were times we did sleep in shelters and the shelters we were sometimes placed in... where we might sleep in this shelter today, but we might sleep in a church tomorrow.”

Rae’s homelessness was the result of her mother’s medical problems until she was placed in the foster system when she was 12 years old.

Today, she’s a graduate student at Point Park University — where she also works in the honors office.

She’s become an advocate for homeless children and programs designed to help them, like the Homeless Children Education Fund in the Hill District.

“I think most people don’t realize how many students are experiencing homelessness,” said Kaitlyn Nykwest, Senior Director of Programs.

She says more than 3,100 children are dealing with homelessness right now, just in Allegheny County.

“If you’re a kindergartener learning to read, and you missed the days where you’re talking about short vowels, reading suddenly becomes much more challenging,” Nykwest said.

The latest numbers from the Department of Education identified over 40,000 children and youth who’ve experienced homelessness in Pennsylvania.

Of the identified homeless youth, 23% were under the age of 5. The report also found that 34 out of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties saw an increase in youth homelessness.

Inflation and low wages are growing challenges, but Nykwest says affordable housing is the biggest issue.

She says most kids experiencing homelessness aren’t in shelters. They’re doubling up with other families, making them harder to identify.

“Families who are doubling up, staying with a family friend or aunt or uncle... they might take turns sleeping on the sofa, might be sleeping on an air mattress or something like that... that’s much more common,” Nykwest said.

And that’s why they created a mobile learning center they call Winnie’s Wagon.

Around four times a week, they use a van to bring free one-on-one tutoring to K-8 students who have missed long stretches of school due to housing instability.

“Bringing that space to students and having access to a library on board, technology, STEM tools, all those resources right at the fingertips of students, it’s like bringing a high-quality program right to their front door,” Nykwest said.

Rae used a scholarship from the Homeless Children’s Education Fund to further her education.

“If you don’t evolve and really start to realize what homelessness is and do something about it, it can take a toll on you,” she said.

She was the first in her family to go to college and now hopes to become a business owner and entrepreneur.

“The only one that can stop you is you,” Rae said. “So don’t allow your situation to be the reason that you failed... and don’t make excuses, make adjustments.”

The national average graduation rate for homeless students is about 68%, according to schoolhouseconnection.org. Youth without a high school diploma are 4.5 times more likely to experience homelessness later in life.

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