By Michelle Rojas
On April 2nd, 2015 from four o’clock to six o’clock in the afternoon I attended a homelessness simulation hosted by PEACHS: Panthers Educating and Advocating for Children in Homeless Situations; I am the President of this organization. The aim of this event was to help educate college students about the real experiences of individuals that are homeless in order to eradicate stigma. Members were asked to complete a set of simulations that shed light into the day-to-day experiences of members of this population. Simulations included, information about the effects of homelessness on children, what it feels like to have to pack a backpack and have to choose among important personal/valuable items, food shopping/transportation on a strict budget; as well as learning that homelessness does not discriminate and can and does impact all ethnicities, genders, etc. PEACHS was also collecting canned food and school supplies that will be donated to the Homeless Children Education Fund. Students received resource sheets in which they could find information of local places where they can volunteer and continue the learning process.
After students completed the simulation, many of them were astonished about all of the statistics. Many were blown away by the amount of teenagers that are kicked out of their homes for being LGBTQIA. Others never truly understood how homelessness can affect everyone; and how much homelessness affects your health detrimentally. Homelessness is a very big problem in Pittsburgh and also in the country. Family homelessness is caused by the combined effects of lack of affordable housing, unemployment, and limited access to resources/supports, health and mental health challenges, and violent or hostile environments; amongst a majority of other catalysts. On any given day, researchers estimate that more than 200,000 children have no place to live. Among school-aged children in western Pennsylvania, there are nearly 3,000 identified as homeless, including Pittsburgh Public Schools (745), Wilkinsburg (175) and Woodland Hills (147). When homeless students were combined by county, it revealed more than 1,700 in Allegheny County, about 250 in Westmoreland County, nearly 200 in Beaver County and 145 in Washington County. Homelessness dramatically affects children. Although there are occasional news stories of whole families living in cars or tents, that is not the norm. The first step for many homeless families may be moving in with relatives or friends: this is called doubling-up and the children are considered homeless by law. The U.S. Department of Education data for the 2008-09 school year showed over 66% of children and youth identified by school districts as homeless were living in doubled-up situations. Doubling-up is generally not a long-term solution. It’s been estimated that each move of a homeless family puts the children at risk of falling some six months behind in their studies. Children in kindergarten through 3rd grade are most at risk of never catching up. It is in these grades that they are learning to read. After that, they must be able to read to learn. Clearly, the circumstances of being unstably housed have both an immediate effect on children’s classroom performance but also far-reaching consequences for their adult lives.
The homelessness simulation engaged topics such as economic inequality, ability/disability, and discrimination. Many of the essays discuss the impact of “othering.” The homeless population is constantly seen as invisible and thus often times ignored. Simply walking down the street individuals can engage with many people that are homeless, yet choose to not even look at them or hear what they are saying. Many governmental policies also hinder the well being of members of this population. There are countless laws that limit accessibility to governmental resources and also laws that restrict the areas in which the homeless can reside. However, there are success stories such as Utah implementing extensive creation of homes and care for the homeless; thus eradicating homelessness all together.
The homelessness simulation and process definitely supported culturally competent social work practice. The event did a great job of avoiding stereotypes or judgmental analysis of the homeless population. The event also did a good job of not being voyeuristic. The simulation provided a lot of hands on learning experiences, as well as factual and statistical evidence. Overall, I believe that the event was very successful in educating college students about the experiences of those in the homeless population; as well as providing information as to how students can create long-lasting positive change.