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Mifflin County educators battle rural homelessness

Homelessness is often thought of as being an urban problem, but educators in the Mifflin County School District can tell you it’s prominent in rural areas as well.

To help the 90 students identified as homeless in the large rural district in PSEA’s Central Region, the Association of Mifflin County Educators has teamed with the school district again this year to provide a supply pantry stocked with toiletries, school supplies, and other items.

Federal law states that a child is considered homeless if he or she is lacking a fixed regular or adequate night-time residence, according to Michelle Siruc, the homeless liaison for the district. There were 106 students identified as homeless at the end of the 2018-19 school year.

“Homeless students aren’t necessarily going without a roof over their heads at night, but are often doing what is called ‘couch surfing,’’’ Siruc said. “They move from house to house. They may be staying at one friend’s or relative’s house one night, and at another the next.’’

She said many have left home because of various circumstances, including abuse, a fire damaging the home, family financial difficulties, or the hospitalization or incarceration of parents. Siruc works with school counselors and social workers to assist homeless students.

Items for the supply pantry are solicited from district staff and the community. Staff also pay $5 for a Friday dress-down day, with the proceeds going to the pantry.

“The response has been great,’’ said Dianne Shearer, president of the Association of Mifflin County Educators. “We are trying to help these students be successful in school. You can’t learn academics if your life is in disarray. Their primary goal is survival, not school.’’

School districts are required by law to provide transportation to these students, and can provide assistance for students looking to pursue post-secondary education. Students have the right to stay in their home districts, receive free meals at school, and participate in extra-curricular activities.

“Education is an avenue to a better life for these students,’’ Shearer said. “By providing them supplies to make the seven hours they are in school more normal, we have a much better chance of educating them.’’