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A shelter from the storm

By Farah Jimenez One of the many tragedies that unfolded after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita were the historic levels of homeless children and families in 2006.

By Farah Jimenez

One of the many tragedies that unfolded after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita were the historic levels of homeless children and families in 2006.

A man-made disaster made the situation worse. The Great Recession has left one in 45 American children homeless, an increase of 38 percent from 2007 to 2010.

These figures come from Dr. Ellen L. Bassuk, president of the National Center for Family Homelessness, which released this month its annual America's Youngest Outcasts report. The study ranks the effectiveness of state efforts to end homelessness among children and offers specific policy solutions.

"There must be no further cuts in federal and state programs that help homeless children and families," Bassuk says. "Deeper cuts will only create more homelessness and cost us more to fix in the long run."

Soon after the first Youngest Outcasts report was released in 2009, the People's Emergency Center brought Bassuk to Philadelphia to meet with Donald F. Schwarz, deputy mayor of health and opportunity. One of Bassuk's key recommendations was to address the emotional and behavioral health needs of children and youth.

That meeting jump-started the Children's Work Group, a regional partnership that connects family service providers with the Philadelphia Office of Supportive Housing (OSH).

The goal was true social innovation, and great progress has already been made.

The Children's Work Group has developed and implemented cross-agency strategies to prevent children from becoming homeless and to address the needs of children in emergency, transitional, and supportive housing programs.

The city's OSH launched a training initiative called the Sanctuary Model, which helps more than 20 agencies provide the safest environment possible for the 1,600 families who enter emergency housing every year in Philadelphia. When families walk into a shelter in Philadelphia, they more likely feel safe and secure.

Service providers developed a "train the trainer" parenting program, the Family Care Curriculum, to help parents in emergency housing improve their caregiving skills. In the last year, OSH funded this training for 53 case managers and key staff who work with parents from more than 20 emergency and transitional housing programs. When a mother enters a shelter, she is more likely to provide better care for her children.

The city and service providers have launched a series of 62 behavioral health trainings designed to improve management of children and family care. Also, a Trauma-Informed Network Group was established to support all levels of staff providing services to homeless programs. When a child with serious emotional or physical trauma comes to a shelter, he or she has a better chance of being appropriately treated.

These efforts, and similar ones across the state, have helped Pennsylvania move from 11th to ninth on the Youngest Outcast rankings. To continue that improvement, I urge support of House Bill 606 and Senate Bill 157, which would create an Education Department task force to better understand and serve homeless students and to eliminate barriers to academic success.

"We can take specific action now in areas of housing, child care, education, domestic violence, and employment and training to stabilize vulnerable families and prevent child homelessness," says Bassuk.

Because of social innovation like the Children's Work Group, our state reduced its number of homeless children in the last four years by more than 25 percent, to 31,000.

Still, most would agree that's 31,000 too many.