Valley Youth House one

Courtesy of Valley Youth House

Couch surfing, or staying with extended family or friends on their couch, is a typical option for children experiencing homelessness. Valley Youth House created the campaign #CouchesDon’tCount to advocate for homeless youth to Pennsylvania legislators.

For young adults and youth in Western Pennsylvania, homelessness is becoming an increasing problem.

As of July 10, 2019, Washington County alone has 264 unaccompanied youth, which means any child between the ages of birth and 21 who do not live in the custody of parents or a legal guardian, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Education.

That’s what Valley Youth House (VYH), an organization that provides homes for vulnerable, abused and homeless youth, has been trying to tackle.

VYH implemented ‘Bridge2Home: A Host Home Model Program’ in March that connects youth (ages 16-20) who are experiencing housing instability with volunteer homes in Washington, Armstrong, Indiana and Westmoreland counties. Since March two youth have been placed.

Michel Keller, 46, of Greensburg, is the first host home in Westmoreland County. Keller is opening her home with her boyfriend, Michael Murphy, and her three kids.

“We’ve been very blessed and I’ve always wanted to do something like this,” Keller said. “We have the extra room, extra money, why not help out someone in need? We’ve been talking about fostering for a year, and we stumbled upon this program and it just felt right.”

Keller will be meeting with her first youth this Friday.

“She only needed a short term placement, and if she needs to stay with us longer she is more than welcome,” Keller said. “I really wanted to show my kids that we are an open family that helps others in need.”

Those experiencing homelessness or housing instability may be living on the street, shelters, cars or ‘couch surfing’ which is living with extended family or friends, sometimes moving place to place frequently.

Carol Dunlap, host home coordinator, said couch surfing is the most popular option homeless youth utilize.

“Most of the time we see kids who are couch surfing, staying with friends parents,” Dunlap said. “I’ve had a few people come up to me and say ‘My friends kid has been staying with me for two months because he can’t stay with his parents anymore.”

Dunlap expects to have more homeless youth than what has been reported.

“That number is probably double or triple that of what we’re seeing now,” Dunlap said. “Sometimes the system misses them, so we aren’t able to count each individual but we’re working on different measures to make sure we count every single one.”

Westmoreland County has the highest number of unaccompanied youth out of the four counties in the program, with 409 total. There are 200 children who do not live with a parent or legal guardian in kindergarten-fifth, 77 in sixth-eighth and 88 in ninth-12th grade.

Out of the 264 Washington County unaccompanied youth, there are 122 in kindergarten-fifth, 60 in sixth-eighth and 79 in ninth-12th grade.

The program receives referrals for youth facing homeless by several different agencies around the four counties. These agencies try to refer teenagers to Bridge2Home instead of foster care because it can be difficult to get teenagers in.

“We wanted to pilot the program to 16-20 first because it helps a lot of kids who we wanted to keep out of foster care,” Dunlap said. “The program isn’t foster care, and sometimes people assume that, but it’s much different. Eventually we want to expand to 16-24 because we believe young adults need help too.”

Bridge2Home recruits, screens and trains host homes/families. All host homes are subjected to background checks to ensure the safety between the host home providers and the youth. Homes receive a $400 per youth stipend, support and services from VYH staff.

The program is funded through a grant. Each year Bridge2Home has to reapply.

Youth are introduced prior to placement and must voluntarily agree to reside with the host. Dunlap said she’s recently had a youth ‘self select’ a host home.

“I just had a girl who was staying with a friends mom, and they got along great and the mother agreed to become a host home for her,” Dunlap said. “We want to see that because then we already know that the youth and host home get along.”

Once the youth is placed in the host home, a housing stability coach with the VYH assists them in developing and implementing an individual transition plan for short term and long term goals. Plans including housing, education, employment, permanency, physical and mental health and social/recreational goals.

VYH also helps youth by reunification with a parent or guardian if wanted. If the legal guardian doesn’t want to have the child in the home, they can sign a document agreeing for the child to stay in the host home.

Most of the young adults and youth that are facing housing insecurities have dealt with childhood abuse or neglect and some need mental health counseling.

“We’ll do an assessment test to see what is going on with them and from there they can receive counseling so they can cope with the trauma they’ve faced, then they can get where they need to be mentally to improve their future,” Dunlap said.

Bridge2Home is searching for volunteers in Washington, Armstrong, Indiana and Westmoreland counties. Eventually, the program hopes to expand to more counties including Allegheny, Greene and Fayette.

If interested in becoming a host home or if experiencing homelessness contact Carol Dunlap at 412-742-7474 or cdunlap@valleyyouthhouse.org.

Staff writer

Adrianne Uphold is a senior at West Virginia University. Before joining the Observer-Reporter as the summer intern, she was the managing editor at WVU's student newspaper, The Daily Athenaeum. Adrianne also reported for WAJR Radio and Metro News.

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