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MCSD addresses student homelessness

Reported number of many local homeless students on the rise in Mifflin County

LEWISTOWN — For those who believe home life does not affect students’ education, Dianne Shearer, president of the Association of Mifflin County Educators begs to differ.

“If kids don’t have food, clothing or a place to sleep on a regular basis, it makes it next to impossible for them to think education is important,” Shearer said.

The Association has again teamed up with Mifflin County School District to restock the MCSD Student Supply Pantry that benefits students within the district who have been identified as homeless in recognition of Homelessness Awareness Week, Nov. 18 to 22.

A total of 77 students in Mifflin County School District have been identified as homeless this school year, according to Michelle Siruc, the homeless liaison for the district. That number is up from 55 students who were identified at this time last year.

Federal law defines as homeless as any child or youth who is lacking a fixed regular or adequate night time residence, Siruc said.

“The majority of our families are doubled up — meaning they’re living with families or friends. At the secondary level you see kids that often leave home for various reasons — there could be abuse going on. They do what we call ‘couch surfing.'”

Precipitating factors that could lead to homelessness include house fires, eviction, financial difficulties, incarceration of a parent, hospitalization of a parent or death of a parent, Siruc said.

“Typically when people think homeless, they think they’re out on the street or under a bridge — while that is more the urban definition of homeless — rural homeless is a lot more hidden.”

By the end of the 2018-19 school year, 106 students had been identified as homeless. Siruc said the number of identified students has risen each year since she took her position with the school district. She said she would not be surprised if the total number of students identified as homeless exceeds last year’s total.

“Our ultimate goal is to help them be successful in school. We want them value education and help them realize that continuing on in education is going to be what helps them get on in life and hopefully not repeat the same sort of cycle hat happens,” Shearer said.

Siruc attributes the rise in the number of homeless students, in part, to an increased awareness of this issue of homelessness, however, “unfortunately, there there is a high level of poverty in the area. It continues to be a problem.”

The district is seeking a number of items including: cereal bars, snack packs, Pop Tarts, drink pouches, ramen noodles, snacks, canned soups, Cup of Noodles, Easy Mac and Cheese, Chef Boyardee, microwavable meals, razors, shaving cream, body wash, loofas, soap, diapers, cleaner, trash bags, toilet paper, paper towels, laundry soap, baby wipes and Pull-Ups.

Items for the pantry are also shared with Weekend Power Pack Program at East Derry, Indian Valley and Strodes Mills elementary schools, which provides nonperishable microwavable meals to students in need.

Siruc said the district recently hired two social workers who have been working with the students.

“It’s really eye opening to see some of the families we work with and some of the situations they are in. One family didn’t have running water and was getting baths with a hose outside,” she said. “We don’t realize how bad it can be for people.”

“What we can provide them helps them save the money they do have to get permanently housed or meet other needs they do have,” Siruc added. Donations, “help provide educational stability for kids — which often times is the only stability some of these kids have.”

It is important to identify families struggling with finding adequate housing because once they are identified, they can become eligible for other services such as free meals while at school and transportation to their school of origin before they became displaced.

Siruc said there are also options for post secondary education for students who have been identified as homeless, including scholarships and reduced tuition rates.

“It’s really important to make sure we’re identifying them so that we can get them access to all of the services that might help them to be successful,” she said.

Shearer wished to thank the community and school district employees who supported the pantry last year.

“I really hope that they would continue to support it,” she said. “The more we can do to help a student or family when they’re in need, the better it is for all of Mifflin County.”

As a result of last year’s donations, Shearer said the district was able to provide one student who would not have been able to celebrate the holidays with some supplies so the family was able to get back on their feet.

“The parents were able to get jobs and they were able to get off the homeless list,” she said. “We see that this (program) helps people get started and know people care. It’s great when you see that they’re no longer homeless and they’re holding down stable jobs.”

The pantry is possible through a team effort between the Association of Mifflin County Educators, counselors, social workers, principals and staff.

“Everybody has been involved in identifying the kids and doing their part in helping find out what they need,” Siruc said.

For $5, teachers are able to dress in jeans on Friday, with proceeds benefiting the pantry. Teachers are also being encouraged to wear red on Friday to show their support during Homelessness Awareness Week.

Monetary donations and gift cards will also be accepted to purchase needed items that are not in the pantry.

“We’re thankful for any assistance,” Siruc said. “No donation is too small. If somebody can buy a pack of pencils, fantastic. If someone wants to donate $500, that’s fantastic. Every little bit has really been helpful because each students’ needs are different.”

Donations will be accepted year round. They can be taken to individual school buildings or the Mifflin County School District administrative building.

For more information, contact Siruc at (717) 248-0148, ext. 2546 or mrf33@mcsdk12.org.

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