Mary's Shelter opens new wing for homeless teenagers


MUHLENBERG TWP., Pa. – Just because you're a youth living with your family and have a roof over your head doesn't mean you can’t be homeless.

That was one of many facts about youth homelessness in Berks County, presented at a "lunch-and-learn" session at the Berks County Intermediate Unit in Muhlenberg Township on Thursday. The event was sponsored by Pennsylvania's Education for Children and Youth Experiencing Homelessness (ECYEH). About 75 people attended, including state and local political leaders, school administrators and teachers, business leaders and social service workers.

The latest figures released by the state Department of Education for the 2017-2018 school year indicate that, in Berks County, 2,279 youth were deemed homeless. Eighty percent of that number were said to be "doubled-up," meaning they were living temporarily in someone else's home, either with or without their family.

Such circumstances make doing schoolwork difficult and cause other problems.

Not all federal agencies and laws have the same definitions of homelessness, so not all the money goes where it is needed. A good example is that youth who are "doubled up" are not eligible to receive help from federal HUD (Housing and Urban Development) programs. Local groups must step in.

Mary's Shelter

"These are good kids," said panelist Christine Folk, the executive director of Mary's Shelter in Reading. "Our first job is to make kids feel safe and keep them in school. We teach them skills to be independent and empower them to take charge of their lives."

Mary's Shelter has joined forces with the Berks County Intermediate Unit, ECYEH, and the Berks Coalition to End Homelessness' youth committee to find and initiate solutions to the number of homeless and runaway youth in Berks County. The shelter has received several grants to operate the YESS (Youth Empowerment Support Services) residential program and the drop-in center to address the immediate needs of young people living on the streets.

Family Promise

Panelist Elise Chesson, the director of the local Family Promise center, said her group's focus is "to keep the family together and youth off the streets while providing hope and opportunities for change."

Family Promise partners with church congregations and faith organizations to provide housing and meals in the Interfaith Hospitality Network, hosting families for a week at a time at their church or providing volunteers to be with the families.

Family Promise also offers U-Turn, a program that provides case management and drop-in center facilities on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. to unaccompanied/homeless youth in Berks County. U-Turn is designed to help individuals achieve educational, employment, housing stabilization and sustainable independence while engaging people with diverse backgrounds to come together and form lasting partnerships.

Chesson pointed out that it takes, on average, a $17.50 hourly wage, well above the current $7.15 minimum wage, to rent a two-bedroom apartment in Berks County. To address this problem, Family Promise has a program whereby, for one year, participants pay 30% of their income for rent and Family Promise pays the balance.

Berks County Intermediate Unit

Tabitha Kramer, a panelist representing the BCIU, ECYEH, enumerated several of the programs her organization offers to the local school districts, including advocacy and guidance, literacy programs, professional development, and tutoring. She pointed with pride to a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) program offered last summer that had more than 70 students enrolled.

Panel leader, Kristen Hoffa, the regional coordinator of Education for Children and Youth Experiencing Homelessness, Berks County Intermediate Unit, wrapped the session by calling on attendees to expand their partnerships and increase their advocacy in fighting youth homelessness.

Hoffa called attention to three pieces of federal legislation: H.R. 2001, the Homeless Children and Youth Act, which aligns HUD's definition of homeless with other federal program definitions, allowing communities to serve all vulnerable populations; H.R. 2740, the Education for Homeless Children and Youth Act, which provides funding to support the education of children and youth experiencing homelessness; and H.R. 2740, the Runaway and Homeless Youth Act, which provides funding for temporary housing, outreach, and basic supports for youth experiencing homelessness.