An independent news publication of
United Way of Lancaster County


Panel discussion shines a light on student homelessness (video)

From left: Donovan Arnold, Melissa DeMotta, Barbara Huggins, Lisette Rivera. (Sources: Provided)

The state Department of Education documented 2,300 homeless students in Lancaster County in 2021-22, and more than 40,000 statewide — but those are almost certainly undercounts, panelists said last week.

“Many communities don’t recognize that this really is a bigger problem,” said Barbara Huggins, community strategies associate with the National Network for Youth, during United Way of Lancaster County’s Apri 16 “Conversation About OUR Community” on student homelessness.

Huggins joined Donovan Arnold, Lisette Rivera and Melissa DeMotta for the Zoom discussion, which explored the causes and consequences of student homelessness and what the community can do to help.

Rivera is the site coordinator for the School District of Lancaster’s Families in Transition program, which serves families dealing with housing insecurity and homelessness. In 2022-23, it served nearly 1,200 students, parents and siblings.

Rivera said SDL is seeing more unaccompanied youths, particularly teenage boys. Exacerbating the situation is the area’s affordable housing crisis and lack of shelter capacity.

When families are struggling with homelessness, they’re in survival mode, she said, so education is not what they’re focused on. As one would expect, housing instability is associated with a range of negative effects on students, including exhaustion, stress, lack of resources and absenteeism, all of which can lead to declining grades and potentially dropping out.

The federal McKinney-Vento Act defines student homelessness and outlines the rights of homeless students, including the right to receive the same free, appropriate public education and related services as their housed peers, and to have any barriers to their education addressed appropriately.

Pennsylvania’s Education for Children and Youth Experiencing Homelessness program, or ECYEH, is charged with implementing and enforcing the law and advocating for homeless students. The state is divided into eight ECYEH regions; Lancaster County is among the six counties in Region 2.

Resources: Student homelessness

Every school district is required to have a homelessness liaison, ECYEH Supervisor Melissa DeMotta said. In some districts, it’s a part-time role; others have full-fleged programs. What’s especially effective, she said, is a collaborative multi-agency approach, with services provided to a given student or family through a single point of contact.

The National Network for Youth works both on state and federal advocacy and locally to bolster youth homelessness services. Among other things, it helps communities to set up Youth Action Boards so homeless youth can take part in advocating on their own behalf.

Arnold is a co-founder of the Lancaster Youth Action Board, which has been meeting since June 2023. It has helped him make supportive personal connections and find his voice, he said, calling it “the best thing ever.”

Huggins said homeless students not only need more resources, but more assistance in identifying and accessing the resources that do exist. She encouraged a focus on social connections and “empowering practices” — initiatives that encourage students to focus on their potential rather than their problems or shortcomings.

Homelessness comes in many forms, and rarely looks like the stereotypes, Lisette said. There are homeless parents working multiple jobs and doing the best for their families. Approach the issue with an open mind and an open heart, she said.

“Check your bias at the door,” she said.