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Bethlehem schools program takes aim at reducing student homelessness

Yaritza Class.jpg
Sarah Mueller
Yaritza Class makes quesitos, a Puerto Rican pastry, to sell as a way to help pay bills
Bethlehem schools program takes aim at reducing student homelessness
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BETHLEHEM, Pa. - It was the first day of school this past August when Yaritza Class found out her husband, who paid the bills, was in jail following a deadly shooting.

Class has four children, three of whom are in Bethlehem Area schools. But with a two-year-old at home, she said didn’t know how she was going to afford to pay rent to keep from being evicted.

“I don’t have the money to pay for a babysitter to just go out and make that money,” she explained.

  • Grant funding allows Bethlehem Area School District to hire more housing navigators to identify at-risk students and provide resources.
  • Housing advocates say this is a unique, first-of-its-kind program.
  • Bethlehem Area School District had 414 homeless students as of October 2021.

The mother of four is currently paying for essentials, like diapers, by making quesitos, or Puerto Rican cheese-filled pastries. She also applied for rental assistance with the help of staff with Fountain Hill Elementary, United Way and New Bethany Ministries.

She said she wasn’t previously aware of the services.

“I didn’t even know they had those and since that I know that the school liked to help that way, I mean I feel more comfortable with everything.”

Class was recently approved for rental assistance for September and October. A utility bill was also covered.

Expanding a pilot program

Bethlehem Area School District is directing more than $166,000 to expand a pilot program that started last year at three Southside schools. One of them is Fountain Hill, where two of Class' kids attend. These schools have high percentages of Spanish-speaking, low-income students who are housing insecure.

“Rents have gone up, they’ve practically doubled since 2020. The last period of time it took to double was a full 18-year period, from the year 2000 until 2018. And from then until now, it’s doubled a second time.”
Marc Rittle, Executive Director of New Bethany Ministries

The program is being expanded district-wide and is aimed at preventing students from becoming homeless and finding housing for families currently unhoused in the district. As of October 2021, about 10% of the district's student population, 414 students, were homeless.

New Bethany Ministries, a nonprofit group, had provided one onsite part-time housing navigator to connect housing insecure families to resources. Now there will be five. Executive Directive Marc Rittle said a shortage of affordable housing in the Bethlehem area is a real problem.

“Rents have gone up, they’ve practically doubled since 2020. The last period of time it took to double was a full 18-year period, from the year 2000 until 2018. And from then until now, it’s doubled a second time.”

Rittle said the pilot program showed having a navigator onsite at the schools effectively prevented families from becoming homeless. But there’s also a lack of available housing. The group is sheltering 90 families in hotel rooms because there’s nowhere else for them to live.

Preventing learning loss

Benita Draper, director of Equity Initiatives for the Bethlehem Area School District, said preventing a student from becoming homeless pays off in the child’s ability to learn. She cited an example from last year of a homeless family who had to stay far from their child’s school. The student’s attendance dropped dramatically until the district was able to provide them with housing resources.

“We were able to get them back into school so their attendance improved and then also which means the grades would start to improve because they could be present at school to learn,” she said.

Rittle said the partnership with Bethlehem schools could act as a model for other area school districts in the Valley.

“This is a first and this is actually unique,” he said. “I’m not even sure if there are similar contracts with other homeless services organizations.”

A model for the Valley

Jill Pereira, vice president of education and impact for the United Way of the Greater Lehigh Valley, said onsite housing navigators may be a possibility in Allentown.

The United Way partners with organizations like New Bethany as part of the Community Schools program. Community Schools provide wraparound services in low-income schools with the aim of improving economic and academic outcomes. Services include food and clothing assistance, onsite healthcare services, and parental engagement activities.

There are 31 schools in Allentown, Bethlehem Area, Easton Area and Bangor Area School Districts serving around 19,000 students.

Pereira said the Allentown School District has two homeless liaisons who provide resources and the city also has one.

“We’re looking at like what is the actual need for some other form of coordination around homelessness services in Allentown, but it’s possible that a housing navigator inside of community schools could be a value-add,” she said. “Or with some tweaking to the resources that already exist.”

ASD’s spokeswoman said at any time there could be 600 to 700 homeless students who attend school in the district.