Shelters in Bucks and Lehigh counties remain open as pandemic continues
The Backpack Challenge is an annual community effort led by Valley Youth House in partnership with the state Department of Human Services. The traditional backpack collection efforts this year are focused instead on collecting funds to purchase laptop computers for college freshman. Funds collected will also allow the group to support young people with additional fees and other things to help close the financial gaps for its college students. The goal is to raise $30,000 in support of Valley Youth House’s young people.
There was no possible way Valley Youth House could have planned for the pandemic. When COVID-19 hit, it was forced to temporarily close several of its office sites, keeping open only its shelters in Lehigh Valley and Bucks County, as well as its Supervised Independent Living sites.
Shelters that are still open have had to take extra precautions: reducing staff, shifting schedules, requiring youth residents to quarantine, requiring staff members to wear masks, and more.
With schools closed, Valley Youth House was also responsible for housing its young residents 24/7, as well as providing academic instructions. It was not an easy feat to pull off, but as Shawn Mack, Valley Youth House’s development director put it, “In spite of [COVID-19], we have a facility that is fully operational.”
All in all, Mack believes that the staff are doing the best they possibly can to care for the youth given the difficult scenario the organization is in. However, as the pandemic continues, the staff are struggling more and more to meet its residents’ needs.
Valley Youth House is an organization whose goal is to provide a home, as well as a sense of stability, to the homeless youth of Bucks County.
Starting out in 1973 as a basic shelter in Lehigh Valley, the organization has grown over the years to have over 300 resident sites scattered throughout Pennsylvania. It provides support to marginalized youth through housing, education, transportation, counseling, and even helping them find employment opportunities.
Mack, a former elementary school teacher, described the situation the young people are in, and how that situation has become more difficult to manage due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The youth that come in are homeless for a number of reasons; there are kids coming from poor families, kids leaving and growing out of the foster care system, LGBTQ kids kicked out from their own homes, kids that do not have a safe home environment because of domestic issues, and many more. For the young people, the Valley Youth House is a constant in what would otherwise be a life of inconsistency. It is a support system which is near-essential for their success, Mack said.
On an average day at the shelter, workers drive their residents to their respective schools as well as any medical appointments they may have. Residents that, for whatever reason, do not attend school are placed in the Youth House’s day program. When the youth return, there are even more structured programs that they can participate in, many of which are outdoors. Older residents often prefer to spend this time independently; some even have jobs.
Funding is a big obstacle Valley Youth House faces. The organization has been receiving generous donations from churches and other community members. The funds would have been enough to sustain them – that is, if the pandemic were completely over and the situation had returned to normal by now.
On top of this, the shelter is having a hard time keeping up other resources, such as art supplies and, most important, food. In the past, the Valley Youth House gladly accepted food donations, but it has recently stopped as a precautionary measure against COVID-19. The young people who rely on Valley Youth House are often already in a poor situation, both financially and emotionally. The pandemic has only made it harder for them to manage.
Like most youth trapped in their house during the quarantine, the residents of Valley Youth House long to get out, socialize with friends, and return to their everyday lives. Unlike the typical child, they have no home to quarantine in. Valley Youth House is their only home.
On the organization’s website, Valley Youth House describes its approach towards managing during the pandemic as one of resilience. Fateemah Dezmon, associate director at Valley Youth, goes into a bit more detail on what resilience means in action.
To her, resilience means that there is no slowing down. Despite COVID-19 throwing everything off, there is no time to waste; instead, Valley Youth House must re-plan for its new needs, all while keeping its residents occupied and its staff motivated.
Dezmon anticipates an even greater need for funding in the near future, but remains dedicated to the young people.
“To still be there for our kids, that’s resilience in itself,” Dezmon says. “‘We’re all in this together’ has never been more true.”
Maximillian Driks is a student at University of Pittsburgh. He is working as a summer intern at the Herald.