Child homelessness is often thought to be rare in developed nations like the United States, but the truth is far grimmer. The Institute for Children, Poverty & Homelessness estimates that 1.3 million children in public schools were affected by homelessness last year, and between 2016 and 2017, over 3,500 youths experienced homelessness in Allegheny County alone. Unreliable living situations or having to live in shelters (or worse, on the streets) can make obtaining a quality education seem nearly impossible. But the Homeless Children's Educational Fund is working to change that.
For nearly two decades, the HCEF has been helping homeless or unreliably housed youth in the Pittsburgh area gain the education they need to achieve a better future for themselves. Currently leading that mission is executive director Carlos Carter, who describes his goal with the HCEF as helping children to "discover the greatness that's within." Carter is a busy man - he's also a singer, voiceover actor, and motivational speaker - but through all his personal and professional work, he remains focused on what he considers to be his most important goal. "My aim is to leave places better than I found them," he says.
Carter's personal mission is perfectly suited for the work of the HCEF. The organization aims to solve child homelessness and reduce its impact by giving children and teens the resources they need to attain the quality education necessary to become empowered and employed citizens as adults. For example, for the past ten years, they've hosted a backpack and school supplies drive, which provided 2,200 filled backpacks in 2018 alone. These supplies may not seem like much, but for a child experiencing homelessness, this simple gesture can enable them to participate and succeed in school, reducing the chances that they'll drop out before they graduate.
The HCEF provides far more than material goods, though - the work of their staff and volunteers enables the success of their after-school, enrichment, and teen outreach programs, which help provide guidance to homeless students in need of tutoring, college guidance, or creative outlets. "We're helping these kids build meaningful relationships," says Carter. "We're showing them that they matter, that they can transcend labels." He adds that there are many paths that lead to child homelessness. "They're just like you and me - they think it'll never happen to them. Domestic violence, the opioid crisis, emotional and physical abuse - they can all be factors.
While the HCEF has helped countless kids reach their true potential over the years, one particular case stands out in Carter's mind. He was on his lunch break one day, and after stopping at the supermarket, he noticed a teenager walking with twelve bags of groceries. Carter asked if he needed help, and the teen replied that he planned to walk two and a half miles back home. "I offered to drive him, and when he got in the car, we started talking. I was telling him about my work, and he told me, 'You're like an angel,'" says Carter. The young man revealed that he lived in a "shack," and Carter saw an opportunity to help him change his life for the better.
The two exchanged contact information, and Carter learned more details of the young man's struggles, such as that he had to take two hours to ride the bus to school every day. From then on, Carter and the HCEF did whatever they could to help the young man's education become more accessible. One day, when they presented him with new shoes and a backpack, the teen looked at Carter and said, "This is what love feels like."
"He said it so casually, so sincerely," says Carter. "He wasn't trying to be profound, but that moment struck me so hard. I'll never forget that."
As Carter and the HCEF continue their work to improve the educational situations for homeless children in Western PA, Carter emphasizes the need for empathy towards homeless youth in the United States. "Let's not create labels. I want every one of these kids to have that same experience: to know what love feels like."
You can donate and learn more about the HCEF by visiting their website.