‘Silent epidemic’ of homeless students surges in the Midstate

Destiny Guthrie studies with her mom and sister at a the York Rescue Mission's Women and Children's Shelter.

YORK, Pa. (WHTM) – Eleven-year-old Destiny Guthrie goes over her homework assignments each night with her mom. The fifth grader is working hard to be a straight-A student, but she has a major hardship in her way.

“Unfortunately, we’re broke right now,” Destiny said. “I was kind of freaking out a little bit because I didn’t know what a shelter was.”

“It’s hard, but you always have to find a reason to keep on going,” said Rebecca West, Destiny’s mother.

Destiny, her mother, and 14-year-old sister moved to York from Baltimore for a fresh start. They’re staying at the York Rescue Mission’s Women and Children’s Shelter. This family is among thousands who are a part of a hidden epidemic in the Midstate.

“No matter where we are, we always find a reason to smile,” West said.

An estimated 1.3 million students are homeless in the United States. More than 26,000 of those kids are in Pennsylvania, while the Midstate has more than 4,000, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Education.

School districts have programs in place to try to address the problem. Sonia Pitzi, Region III coordinator for Education for Children and Youth Experiencing Homelessness, works with students and school districts to provide them with some of the resources they need.

“What they have in their life can fit in their backpack,” Pitzi said.

Pennsylvania had more than 11,000 homeless students in 2007. It’s more than doubled since then. Pitzi says people can contact their local school district or shelter to help kids like Destiny who are a part of this staggering statistic.

“Any of us can be in this situation,” Pitzi said. “A lot of people are only one paycheck away from becoming homeless.”

Destiny says she’s tired of classmates teasing her for being homeless and picking on her for things she can’t control, such as not being able to afford expensive shoes.

“They were making fun of me because it wasn’t a name brand, Jordan’s or Adidas or something fancy like that,” Destiny said. “It makes me feel upset and it makes me feel not wanted.”

Destiny is pretty open about her homelessness. Pitzi says many other students try to hide it, so people never suspect they are homeless. This is why she believes it is a silent epidemic.

“People think poverty and poor. That’s not always the case,” Pitzi said.

Destiny has a message for the entire Midstate.

“If you see someone out on the street and you have possibly some spare food, share,” she said, “at least try to help that person.”

“I can be their voice for them. They don’t have to be the poster child. I’ll be their voice, and I’ll believe in them until they can believe in themselves because there is just greatness in them, and they just need to know that’s going to come out,” Pitzi said.

This is greatness Destiny aspires to as she learns from her challenges and looks forward to the next chapter in her young life.

Lancaster County has the most homeless students in Central Pennsylvania with a total of 1,650. It’s also the county with the third-highest number of students who don’t have a home in the state, behind Allegheny County at 2,922 and Philadelphia at 5,764.

Dauphin County comes in second with 780, and York County is third with 753 homeless students. Cumberland County has 313, Franklin County has 269, Adams County has 231, Lebanon County has 155, Mifflin County has 49, Cumberland/Perry County has 25, York/Adams County has 25, Perry County has 23, and Juniata County has less than 10.

These are the Pennsylvania Department of Education’s numbers for the 2014 to 2015 school year. Pitzi believes they are significantly higher due to being under reported.

You can view the breakdown of homeless students in each county throughout Pennsylvania, or read more about homeless education in Pennsylvania, by visiting the Education Department website.

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