Youth Homelessness

Creative Solutions for Displaced Youth

Roberta Machin, BA


Youth homelessness is a serious and growing issue in the United States, with 46% of homeless youth reporting physical abuse, 75% dropping out of school, and 40% of the entire homeless youth population identifying as LGBT.  In order to raise awareness of this issue and present relevant information and statistics to those who work with at-risk youth, Pennsylvania’s Education for Children and Youth Experiencing Homelessness (ECYEH) held its second annual regional youth homelessness conference on September 27 at the Crowne Plaza Reading, entitled “Creative Solutions for Displaced Youth.”

Jack Williams, Co-Executive Director of the Berks Coalition to End Homelessness, opened the program with a story.  He explained that his wife was a kindergarten teacher, and one night a woman came to the school with all four of her children for a parent teacher conference.  The woman’s car had broken down seven miles away, and she had to walk the rest of the way to the school with her children in the pouring rain.  Jack’s wife decided to dig a little deeper, and discovered that the woman was a victim of domestic violence and attempted murder.  She was going to lose her house in one week.  Jack and his wife helped to connect her with social service resources so that she could begin to recover and get back on her feet, and she now has a safe home for herself and her children.

After Jack told his story, he introduced Joe Willard, Vice President for Policy at People’s Emergency Center in Philadelphia and keynote speaker for the conference.  Joe spoke on the current state of youth homelessness.  He explained that work with homeless children and youth is in the beginning stages, because a lot of systems don’t have the capacity to serve them yet.  Joe explained that with cases of youth homelessness, building relationships with students is the key.  A series of workshops followed the introductory and keynote speakers, and I decided to attend “Chocolate & Poverty,” “Weathering Brainstorms: Understanding Trauma,” and “Addressing Higher Education & Homelessness.”

Stacey Spagenburg, Admissions Counselor at the Milton Hershey School, led the workshop “Chocolate & Poverty.”  She explained that Milton Hershey grew up extremely poor, and since he and his wife were unable to have children, they decided to start a school free of charge for children from low-income families.  During her workshop, Stacey showed us a video of a commencement speech by a student named Kevin, who said, “The art of dreaming is a response to opportunity.”  Stacey explained that kids in poverty do not have the same opportunities as those from the middle class, they struggle more academically, and they face more health problems.  “Every nineteen minutes, there is a child born into poverty,” said Stacey.  She also went over the different ways that loaners and businesses might take advantage of vulnerable families living in poverty.  In conclusion, Stacey said, “It does not matter what hand you’re dealt in life, it’s how you play that hand.”

The second workshop I attended, “Weathering Brainstorms: Understanding Trauma,” was led by Mike Ritter, Public Education Coordinator of Lebanon’s Domestic Violence Intervention.  He spoke about the three levels of stress for young children: positive, tolerable, and toxic.  Mike explained that positive stress is necessary and promotes resilience.  It arises from adverse encounters, and allows you to develop coping skills and utilize social support.  Tolerable stress is serious and temporary, activated due to severe stressors such as a car crash.  With appropriate care and guidance from adults, children can turn tolerable stress into positive stress.  Lastly, toxic stress presents due to an ongoing, intense trauma and a lack of necessary social supports.  Mike defined trauma as “the unique individual experience of an event or enduring condition,” which may lead to threat of life or sanity and may affect capacity to cope and function regularly.  Mike showed us images of a healthy three year old brain and an unhealthy three year old brain; the unhealthy brain was underdeveloped, and you could clearly see a lack of brain matter.  According to Mike, trauma-informed care is an essential method to use for children who have experienced trauma, because it is strengths-based.  Instead of asking, “What did you do?” ask “What happened to you?”  In order for children to overcome trauma and turn their toxic stress into positive stress, they need help from an adult who is caring, consistent, and compassionate.

Lastly, Tori Nuccio, Assistant Director of Financial Aid at West Chester University, spoke about “Addressing Higher Education & Homelessness.”  The goal of her workshop was to educate participants on how to assist students in accessing financial aid.  She explained different scenarios in which a determination could be made that a student is an unaccompanied homeless youth, which would entitle them to additional financial aid.  In order to make this determination, the youth must be under 24 years old, not in the care of his or her parents, and without fixed and adequate nighttime residence.  Many times a student chooses to or is forced to leave home, due to a family conflict, abuse, or parental incarceration; however, the reason does not matter when making the determination.  Tori explains that many times, a FAFSA is rejected because the student is not sure how to accurately fill out information when they are homeless, and they are unaware that they can receive additional financial aid if this determination is made.  Tori attempts to identify homeless youth, so that she can connect them to additional financial aid, as well as resources such as food pantries and housing assistance.

All of the speakers at the “Creative Solutions for Displaced Youth” conference had interesting and important information to share.  The workshops sparked a lot of conversation around the topic of youth homelessness, which is vital for creating additional resources that aid children and young adults experiencing homelessness.