HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) _ Strained by drug use, Natasha Gentry’s family ties had grown thin. Her money and options scarce.
After a DUI crash that nearly killed her, the mother of three moved herself into a bustling east-side Harrisburg shelter in an effort to get clean, her then 10-year-old daughter by her side.
In the days, weeks and months that followed, Gentry would fully commit to her sobriety, adhering to a rigorous schedule of group meetings and one-on-one counseling sessions.
For her daughter, now 11, the move would mean adjusting to life as one of Pennsylvania’s roughly 22,000 homeless students in grades pre-K through 12.
The transition, it turned out, would not be seamless.
The shelter _ a converted former school building in a working class corner of the city _ is crowded with as many as 25 women and children at a time. Twenty-two of its 25 beds are now taken, and the demand is constantly growing.
As a result, the rooms and labyrinthine hallways are filled with people and their belongings. Boxes and bags line the walls. Donations and unused furniture clog the corners.
Sometimes the confines breed conflict. The familiarity, contempt.
For students like Gentry’s daughter, the din can be deafening.
The two share a large upstairs bedroom packed with sundry items _ perfume, clothes, toys _ and overrun with the color pink.
They are surrounded by other residents and, often, all the friction that entails.
Life like this can be difficult, even more so for recovering addicts with fragile footholds and growing children craving a measure of personal space.
Gentry said her daughter, whom she identifies as learning disabled, has struggled with the distractions. Sometimes this means no quiet place to do homework. Sometimes it means active disruptions, such as fights or arguments between residents.
The 11-year-old’s grades have slipped some this year. She’s grown more insolent. Whether that’s due to adolescence or circumstance, or both, remains to be seen.
But Gentry describes a feeling of losing touch with her child, or at least with her sense of control as a parent.
“It’s a challenge for her to listen to me more since we’ve been in here,” Gentry said, sounding tired but still stubbornly upbeat. “She thinks a lot of people pick on her and we had to boost (counseling) services for her since moving here.”
Gentry continued, “She says I don’t want to be here. I say it’s for the better. For mommy to get off drugs. I say, `Just give mommy until next school year. We’ll have an address. Our own address.”’
`A Perpetual Cycle’
If life is chaos for homeless children _ a constantly changing tapestry of people, places and things _ then for homeless students like Gentry’s daughter, it’s closer to a minefield.
According to the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, an advocacy and research group created by Congress in 2000, homeless children are sick at twice the rate of other children. They are twice as likely to go hungry. Twice as likely to repeat a grade. Twice as likely to have learning disabilities, and three times as likely to have emotional and behavioral problems that also go untreated.
Across the nation, the number of students counted as homeless has exploded in recent years, as school reporting practices improved and the post-recession economy remained sluggish for some.
The economic downturn itself preceded one of the most startling jumps in student homelessness in American history.
Since 2007-2008, a year that marked the beginning of a housing and job market crash from which the U.S. continues to recover, student homeless numbers doubled nationwide to reach 1.4 million in 2014, an all-time high.
Pennsylvania saw an 18 percent increase, to roughly 22,000 homeless students, from 2012-2013 to 2013-2014 alone, more than double the national average.
Despite this, the Commonwealth ranked eighth best in the nation overall _ in areas such as risk and child well-being _ with states, led by Alabama, in the west, south and Appalachia ranked among the nation’s worst. The rankings came with a report by the National Center on Family Homelessness at American Institutes for Research, looking at the number of homeless children in each state, their well-being, their risk for homelessness and state-level planning and policy efforts.
The Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development could have provided money to help helped homeless men, women and children but didn’t, according to a damning report by Pa. Auditor General Eugene DePasquale.
Another, maybe less obvious, side effect of the recession was the demand it created for social services and, in some cases, greater numbers of potential clients falling through the cracks or farther down the wait list.
“When the economic crisis hit, our population was already kind of at the bottom of the totem pole,” Saundra James-Goodrum, a social worker and homeless liaison with the Harrisburg School District said.
“The middle class pushed into homelessness people that weren’t homeless before, and that pushed those that already were (homeless) further down.”
And while an economic recovery has continued to build across the country, Pennsylvania’s rebound has been slower than most.
With this, too, are factors not necessarily unique to the Commonwealth _ including a lack of affordable housing, surging rates of drug use and evictions _ that continue to push families into homelessness and into state public welfare programs.
Since the recession, the number of adults and children eligible for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, grew by 660,000 in Pennsylvania, state Department of Human Services records shows. Eligibility for state medical benefits rose by roughly 450,000 persons in that time.
In Lancaster City, where affordable housing stock has declined greatly in recent years, drawing the attention of city officials and a newly created commission on poverty, rates of student homelessness are among the highest in the state.
Pennsylvania Secretary of Education and former superintendent of the School District of Lancaster, Pedro Rivera, said this is also due, in part, to the greater availability of services there “like homeless shelters, soup kitchens, food banks, health providers and public transportation,” which draw in homeless families from surrounding towns and counties.
But nowhere is immune.
The fact is, state Department of Education data shows, if you have a child in school in Pennsylvania, there is a good chance your child shares that school, and its classrooms, with homeless children.
And while the greatest number of Pennsylvania’s homeless students certainly reside in cities, rural districts account for some of the highest rates, per capita, anywhere in the state.
“Youth homelessness doesn’t just happen in the large cities,” Kristen Hoffa, a regional coordinator for schools in Berks, Chester, Dauphin, Lancaster, Lebanon, and Schuylkill counties said.
“This is happening in every community.”
Most of these students, roughly 60 percent, are “doubled up,” or staying with friends and family, as opposed to living on the street. But they do so without tenant rights and with nothing but the whims of their hosts to fall back on.
The second greatest portion, roughly 30 percent, seek refuge in shelters, transitional housing or await foster care placement. And in the most serious cases, families turn to cars and abandoned buildings for cover.
At the Bethesda Mission’s Women and Children’s Shelter on North 20th Street in Harrisburg, where Gentry lives with her daughter, shelter director Shelley Brooks said she has no doubt the latter is happening regularly in places like Harrisburg and Lancaster, two cities with inordinate numbers of homeless youth.
The shelter is currently home to five children, three school aged and two soon to be.
Brooks worries about all of them constantly.
On rare occasions, she said, a child rises to meet the challenges homelessness presents. Others implode. All are forced to grow up too soon.
“They become adults in little children’s bodies,” she said. “They should be creating and inquisitive and instead they’re worrying about where their next meal is coming from.”
At the Harrisburg School District, Marianne Peters, a student services supervisor, said the effects vary from child to child. Some, she said, go from the honor roll to falling asleep in class. Behaviors change. Outbursts begin. Anger sets in.
But it’s not just those outward signs that cause alarm for school officials.
“Our kids are very resilient and some are so resilient that that can be concerning,” Peters explained.
“For some of them this may be the only living arrangement they’ve ever known or remember, and they can start to go numb. They can become too resilient.”
That warped sense of normalcy, along with a slew of ingrained socio-economic conditions, can almost guarantee the continuation of homelessness in future generations, experts say.
“It’s a cycle,” Sarah Runk, a counselor at the North 20th Street shelter added. “A perpetual cycle.”
`A Normal, Happy Life’
Since coming to the shelter, Gentry said the program’s restrictions on free time and after-hours activities have made school functions next to impossible to attend and friendships for her daughter harder to forge. Transportation is also an issue, and Internet access limited.
As a result, Gentry’s daughter is an increasingly isolated child, one caught between worlds as she’s shuttled between a shelter that will never be home and a school that feels less and less like her own all the time.
She tried her hand at cheerleading last year, Gentry said, but later dropped out.
The privations of shelter life, meanwhile, are perfectly suited, or rather designed to suit, Gentry’s needs as a recovering addict who’s working to cut ties with the past and, at least for now, the trappings of free will.
She is coming up on one year at the shelter in June, and needless to say her daughter is counting down the days until they can be on their own again.
And while Gentry arrived at the shelter voluntarily, she must complete the program under a court order after pleading guilty to DUI charges stemming from the one-car crash that first brought her in.
When that day comes, her daughter said she hopes to move closer to her father and brothers, who she’s seen less of since first coming to the shelter last year.
Gentry, meanwhile, is looking forward to getting back into the workforce full-time. Before her descent, she worked as an executive assistant to a state senator and helped oversee a work release program for female offenders in Dauphin County.
“I had fabulous jobs,” she said, beaming.
But that was then, before an addiction to drugs and prescription pills took its toll.
Now, the 33-year-old mother is getting ready to try again and outwardly seems to have no doubts about the future.
“I’m 100 percent sure I can do it when I get out of here,” she said. “It will be a normal, happy life.”
Information from: Pennlive.com, http://www.pennlive.com