AASD using Rescue Plan grant to fight homelessness
The Altoona Area School District is facing a youth homelessness crisis that is expected to worsen as the school year progresses, said Assistant Superintendent Brad Hatch.
That’s why the Altoona Area School Board recently approved the submission and implementation of all portions of an American Rescue Plan Homeless grant in the amount of $153,457. The district is required to allocate federal funding to address homelessness each year, Hatch said, adding that the amount varies.
The funds will be used to provide students in need with various agency supports and basic needs like housing, food, clothing, school supplies and medical care. The grant was approved retroactively from July 2021 to September 2024.
What makes homelessness particularly hard to tackle is that it is often less visible than people realize, Hatch said, adding that not all people experiencing homelessness live on the streets.
“You have a lot of families that are doubled up and living in a very small space, so you’re talking about multiple-parent units as well as children living in the same home, maybe sleeping on the floor or on the couch,” Hatch said.
“I’ve been to homes where there have literally been four families living in a home,” he said, noting it is important to be “aware that that is out there and in
Some students experience homelessness without the presence of family, when they’re runaways, for example, or were kicked out due to conflict with family.
AASD in top three
Hatch said 71 district students are currently experiencing homelessness, but that number is expected to stretch into the hundreds before the end of the school year.
“Seventy-one is about typical for this time of the year, and that number will definitely increase,” Hatch said. “Traditionally, we’re between 150 and 250 in annual reporting.”
These figures put Altoona in the top three most homeless areas in the region, along with Centre County and the DuBois area, according to Andrea Sheesley, regional coordinator for the Pennsylvania Department of Education’s Region 6, which covers 11 counties, including Blair County.
Sheesley oversees collaboration with school districts in the counties for which she’s responsible, and works with shelters and transitional housing providers. She trains school district liaisons and shelter providers and works on school enrollment and placement, technical assistance and distribution of school supplies and hygiene products.
Identifying students who are couch surfing is a huge problem, especially in rural areas, Sheesley said.
“The rural nature of outside the city would cause a lot of homelessness as well because students are easily able to get to friends and stay in other people’s homes,” she said.
The reported number of students experiencing homelessness, Hatch said, is just the tip of the iceberg. When siblings — whether school age or not — are added to the mix, the “number will definitely increase,” he said.
“We’ve not even come close to identifying all of the students and families in those situations,” Hatch said.
As the Altoona Area School District’s homelessness liaison, Hatch works with his administrative assistant to connect students experiencing homelessness to community resources.
According to Lisa Hann, executive director of Family Services Inc., there’s no shortage of agency support in the community.
The local teen center, she said, provides youth with meals, clothing and personal hygiene items and takes them in for up to 21 days.
In addition, Blair County Community Action assists young people with finding apartments. Family Services also has an apartment, which houses youth experiencing homelessness who have diagnosed mental health conditions, located at the teen center. Their rent is paid for by Blair County Community Action.
Hatch said families in danger of facing homelessness have several places they can contact to ask for help. Pennsylvania 211, he said, is “a great resource,” which connects people with specialists who can then refer them to agency support and emergency housing in the community. The service can be reached by dialing 211 or texting your zip code to 898211. As always, Hatch said, students and families can reach out to his office or guidance counselor staff, too.
Hatch’s duties also include reporting to the state and training staff within the district to help identify students experiencing homelessness.
“If we can identify (youth) experiencing homelessness, which can be difficult, then we can work with them and provide services to those students,” Sheesley said.
Hatch said the AASD has gotten better at identifying students experiencing homelessness.
“We are very active in trying to identify students who are homeless and trying to reach out to them, so I think our efforts at the grassroots level, of identifying students in need, have definitely assisted as well,” Hatch said.
Hatch credits the McKinney-Vento Homeless Education Assistance Improvements Act of 2001, which safeguards the educational rights and protections of children experiencing homelessness.
“When McKinney-Vento (was passed), that pushed on identifying students who are experiencing homelessness and assisting families in those situations,” he said.
The main focus is to continue to provide education to students, no matter their housing situation.
Providing education continuity, Sheesley said, includes getting students back and forth to school to ensure they can attend class and be successful.
It also includes making sure “people have what they need to be able to live, and, from there, also making sure that they are given access to the things other students would in terms of extracurricular activities, camps, tutoring, extra help and social events, school pictures,” Hatch said. “Really, anything that any other student would be able to afford.”
According to Hatch, AASD students experiencing homelessness both inside or outside the district are provided transportation to and from school. District staff can coordinate with the students’ residential district if necessary, he said.
Other factors are contributing to better identification, too, Hatch said.
“Families are more willing to reach out for help,” he said. That, coupled with educating the staff, “has definitely helped as well,” Hatch said.
Still, many people experiencing homelessness aren’t comfortable asking for help.
Hatch said that’s often the case with parents.
“It’s tough to ask for help, and our message is, ‘hey, that’s what we’re here for,'” Hatch said. “We’re here to provide you with help, and no one’s judging.”
Drew Yingling, AASD K-12 counseling department chairperson, also noted the reluctance to ask for help.
“Some folks are very proud and don’t necessarily want assistance,” Yingling said. “My heart goes out to them. The community definitely needs to know (homelessness) is a problem for folks and we need to destigmatize it.”
“They don’t want to feel embarrassed that they have to ask for help,” Hatch said. “It’s a tough thing for someone to say ‘hey, I need help.'”
It’s a tough situation for children and adults alike to experience homelessness, officials said, noting that the reasons people experience homelessness vary. Some family members may be out of work or experiencing medical or mental health issues. Whatever it may be, it’s “preventing them from being able to sustain a stable environment for them and their children,” Hatch said.
Mental illness, Sheesley said, is among the top contributing factors to homelessness. Incarceration and substance abuse among family members are also big contributors, she said, and both are prevalent in Altoona.
“We are a district of high poverty as it is,” Hatch said. “When you add homelessness to poverty, that can definitely have a very challenging impact on students and families in leveling the playing field when they’re worried about meeting life’s basic needs.
Hatch said experiencing homelessness often interferes with students’ education because children have to focus on their more basic needs being met. In turn, he said, this has an adverse effect on students’ mental and emotional well-being. “Sometimes, education takes a backseat, so it puts them at an educational disadvantage,” Hatch said.
Hatch said a lot of support comes from the community and that local residents can help their neighbors in need by supporting food pantries, churches, agencies such as Family Services and more.
Especially now, during the holidays, Hatch said support is important.
“I think we know this is a point of emphasis for us in terms of identifying families in need and making sure they have what they need to have a nice holiday, food and meals, gifts, clothing,” he said.
Residents can also help by keeping posters up in laundromats, restaurants and gas stations to spread awareness, Sheesley said.
In addition, Sheesley urges people to look out for their neighbors.
“If you know a family that is having trouble, contact the school district and they will be able to help,” she said.
Hatch said he’s optimistic because he has faith that the community will do its part to help combat homelessness.
“We are not short on people willing to help,” Hatch said. “Our community, from what I’ve seen, anytime we’ve asked them to respond to a situation where a family is in need, or kids need help, they rise to the challenge.”
Mirror Staff Writer Andrew Mollenauer is at 814-946-7428.