Resolving student homelessness: moving forward
March 7, 2017
Food service providers such as the Pitt Pantry and 412 Food Rescue are partnered with specific universities, however, minors in need on a broader spectrum can turn to the Homeless Children’s Education Fund in Pittsburgh.
The non-profit organization began when its founder, Dr. Joseph Lagana, combined $7,000 left over from retirement, one loan and his passion for children in need. The now million-dollar organization connects with the roughly 3,000 homeless kids in Allegheny County and college-ready students in hopes that higher education can be an option for them.
“The thing that we’re doing that has the greatest impact is identifying kids who have potential to go through college and getting them to apply, getting them to enroll, getting them to participate and have them being mentored,” Lagana said. “To me, that’s the biggest payoff because I know they are going to break the cycle of poverty.”
This transition started when Lagana, a superintendent at the time, said he had found three kids who were experiencing homelessness, were extremely bright, but had no dream about going to college.
He took the opportunity to get those students into the Pittsburgh Technology Institute on scholarships. Two of the students ended second and third in their class.
Point Park is one university Lagana has worked with to combat student financial struggles, working directly with Dean of Students Keith Paylo.
“It occurred to me that there probably were homeless kids attending school who colleges did not realize,” Lagana said. “So I said to a partner with Paylo that we should bring all of the 10 colleges and universities in Pittsburgh together and let’s find out how many they think they have with a conversation.”
Only seven of the universities showed up that day in April. Among the seven, close to 30 kids were identified as possibly homeless or unaccompanied. Now the universities are starting to take a look at ways to create some common programming like a food bank at every one of them.
Paylo represented Point Park for the meeting.
“The difficult part of this issue is identification,” Paylo said.
Lagana believes the homeless community is expanding and that there are two reasons for that: the recession and increased identification.
The students experiencing these lifestyles are often not just losing a home or food, they are also gaining a toxicity no one can comfortably live through. They experience nutrition issues, health and stress issues and self-esteem issues.
“The most basic thing is that I want [the homeless] to know is there is a human being that cares enough to pay attention to their circumstance and not care how they got into that circumstance,” Lagana said. “Not to think poorly about them, but purely want to help them from their heart.”
In the group, Paylo mentioned the first avenue the schools should hit is the financial aid records, where he anticipates cases with zero family contributions. Once he finds the people who can be categorized as low income, he will then be able to search for their housing statuses.
After doing his own research, he plans to identify and help these students through surveying. The surveys could occur through different social media outlets like email or Twitter. Although these students may be financially struggling, research has shown that most homeless people do have a phone or access to a phone.
“A lot of times these individuals don’t want to raise their hands because they’re embarrassed, and this isn’t something that is a popular thing,” Paylo said. “Plus homelessness is acquainted with drug and alcohol abuse or mental illness, but these aren’t the case.”
With financial records and surveying, Point Park will try to find the data necessary to narrow down what may be a big list of the zero-dollar expected family contributions.
Point Park is in the infancy stage of developing the tools to help, in contrast to Duquesne, Pitt and Carnegie Mellon, who all have food banks. However, being located in downtown Pittsburgh means students who need help can easily find the resources without much effort.
“On our campus, because it doesn’t seem to be widespread with the little research we’ve done, I don’t really know if there is any homelessness at Point Park,” Paylo said. “We have been either fortunate or just not aware enough, but that’s where we need to get.”
At Point Park, there are various services that assist students with advising and counseling through the financial aid department and student accounts offices. These services offer creative ways to apply for additional resources and where to go for them.
One of the largest contributors toward the identification issue at Point Park is the fact that students do not have to give their current address to any office for any accounts. On top of this, about 70 percent of Point Park’s student population is made up of commuters. This could potentially mean that a portion of that 70 percent does not have a place to go after their classes end or have a source for food.
If a student truly has nowhere to go, they can always express their circumstance with the school. Paylo admits that he has made exceptions for students who have nowhere to turn.
“I think society has changed in the sense that they’re accepting that people need help sometimes and no one should go hungry in this country,” Paylo said.
As for Kerianne Chen, the University of Pitt student who advocated for the Pitt Pantry at the start of this journey, only has six classes left in her academic career. She has had to pick and choose which classes to focus her attention on in order to survive.
She and her mom last spoke in early December. They did not talk about what happened to her mom on their break of silence, but they did talk about paying the rest of her rent for upcoming months.
Chen hopes to go back home soon and make amends with her mom before she graduates.
“It’s been unbearable, but I still feel so lucky to have my friends because if I didn’t have this network of support, I would not be here,” Chen said.
Her story is rare, but it is not the only one; she does not know anyone else going through similar struggles, but this is not because other people like her do not exist.
She urges people who may be low income or under pressure to reach out to those around them. Looking for assistance in one’s own community or school services may prove to be helpful.
“People are extremely kind and it’s because we don’t deserve to be struggling alone,” Chen said. “It’s amazing how kind people are.”