That’s the number of youth who experienced homelessness last year in Allegheny County, according to the Homeless Children’s Education Fund, a local organization that fights each day to provide education, resources and hope to those without a stable home.
And the overwhelming majority of the 3,000 were Black youth.
“Just imagine, if you’re a 4-year-old, your mom’s in a very abusive relationship, you’re very fearful—the time comes when you have 15 minutes to escape, all you have is a backpack,” said Carlos Carter, executive director of the organization. “What do you put in there? That’s what a lot of families have to face, then the kid is in a shelter in a (sometimes) prison-like environment…where do you do your homework? There’s no computers, the mother is already distressed, it’s very traumatic for a child.”
Thus, the decades-old organization founded by Dr. Joseph Lagana has made it their mission to provide the computers, teachers, cooking classes and other resources that kids and teens may need while they are inside area shelters. HCEF partners with 27 local shelters, has 17 learning centers inside those shelters, and has after school programs at five of the shelters. “More importantly, it’s evolved into a child-friendly space that can be fun, inclusive, and also provides a space for us to bring our enrichment programs that foster creativity, critical thinking skills (arts and sciences),” Carter said. “It gives them a sense of dignity and pride where they feel human and valued.”
Of the 3,000 homeless youth in the county, Carter estimates his organization reaches about 650 of them. Over the years, they’ve reached youth of a middle school age or younger. But recently, the organization has increased efforts to assist high school students who are homeless, which includes those who are living with other family members or friends.
“A lot of older kids don’t like to stay in the shelters,” Carter told the New Pittsburgh Courier in an exclusive interview. Carter said the older teens find a lot of “shame” due to their situation, “but these young people, who may be couch surfing (outside the shelters) still face the same challenges as the people in the shelters, but it’s hard to reach them.”
Monet Spencer was one of those teens that, due to her mother’s untimely death, became homeless. She’s also one of the teens that, with the help of HCEF, the United Way, ACTION-Housing, and one determined mentor, turned a negative situation into quite the positive outcome.
“When my mom died (February 2016), the landlord said me and my twin brother could no longer stay at our apartment,” Spencer told the Courier. Roughly a month later and with just the two siblings living in the apartment, Spencer suffered a severe asthma attack that kept her in the hospital for four weeks. When she was well enough to leave the hospital, she had nowhere to go—until mentor Debra Smallwood, a graduation coordinator for the Neighborhood Learning Alliance at Brashear High School, took her in.
As the months passed, Smallwood assisted Spencer in finding an apartment. On Sept. 14, 2016, it became a reality—ACTION-Housing provided her with an apartment, and a continuation of hope. “It was very stressful for me, actually,” Spencer said of the ordeal. “I had moments where I wanted to give up, not do anything. But then the reality of what my mom went through…I said, ‘If I can’t take care of myself, what does that show, with everything my mom taught me?’”