Homeless students in Pittsburgh find relief from Hope Through Learning Awards

Photo: Homeless Children’s Education Fund executive director Carlos Carter and board member Shelly Renee Brown with Makaila Holston Smith, one of the recipients of the Hope Through Learning Awards, at this year’s awards luncheon.

Jenkins Kimber

When Jenkins Kimber arrived at Carlow University last year, he secured a place to live in exchange for working as a part-time nanny, but that fell through within a week of school starting. Jenkins, a member of the school’s basketball team, had no extra funds to pay for an apartment or on-campus housing.

Scrambling, he was forced to rely on the hospitality of teammates and friends, but constantly moving from one place to another was exhausting. Sometimes he took naps in the school’s gym. He also spent a lot of time at the university’s computer lab and library.

“I was pretty much homeless the whole semester, staying with my friends, bouncing from house to house,” says Jenkins, who will be a senior studying business management and has already earned an associate’s degree in business administration. “And then when the (COVID-19 pandemic) hit, everything got shut down.”

Fortunately, Jenkin’s senior season will be more secure. He is one of nine recipients of this year’s Hope Through Learning Awards distributed by the Homeless Children’s Education Fund (HCEF). “Homeless” is defined by the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act as “lacking a fixed, regular and adequate night-time residence, and includes students living in a shelter, car, motel, doubled-up situation, or places not meant for human habitation.”

Available to youths 24 and younger who are homeless, the $2,500 awards can be used for any school-related or living expenses. The award can go toward tuition, books or even childcare. Since the award program began, $100,000 in scholarships have been awarded. This year’s recipients include kids who will be attending the University of Pittsburgh, Clarion University, Virginia Tech and Community College of Allegheny County.

“It’s easy to get emotional when you think about these young people, especially when you get to know them,” says Carlos Carter, executive director of HCEF.

Homelessness is not limited to specific areas of Allegheny County.  According to HCEF, there are homeless kids in each of the county’s 43 school districts. Over 4,100 kids in Allegheny County experienced homelessness, as defined above, for the most recent school year stats available, 2017-18. HCEF has served more than 10,000 kids over the past 21 years through its various programs.

Carter thinks that figure is a low estimate and that the number of homeless youths is increasing.

“A lot of our young people have a lot of shame, even some of the ones we interviewed for the scholarship,” Carter says. “A lot of them don’t want people to know they are experiencing homelessness. … It impacts the kids’ social, emotional, and educational outcomes.”

Some of the stories of Hope Through Learning Award recipients are heart-wrenching. One youth, whose mother died of cancer and father was incarcerated, was abandoned by his grandparents in a foreclosed house with no utilities or food. He lived on a single Subway sandwich each day.

“He was on his own, struggling,” Carter says. “And the things people say about this young man, about his intellect and spirit, really blow you away.”

For Jenkins Kimber, the Hope Through Learning Award means he can concentrate on academics and basketball. After a school year of sleeping on couches and not sure where he’d wake up each morning, having a place to live is a great relief.

“God answered my prayers,” he says.