By Kathy Boccella, Inquirer Staff Writer
For Erika Taylor, a Pottstown mother of four, the long line for fingerprinting at the UPS Store was just one more roadblock in her quest to reenter the job market and finally gain some stability after moving her children eight times in the last 17 years.
It almost didn't happen - for lack of $1.
When the clerk at the head of the fingerprinting line noticed Taylor's first and last names were inverted on the registration form, she demanded a dollar for a correction, but the 45-year-old didn't have it.
On that day, however, she had help. Social worker Jaime Tyson, who had driven Taylor to the store in Norristown and paid the fingerprinting fee, scurried back to her car to get one more dollar bill so Taylor could get back in the line.
When she returned to the store, her client was in tears, not so much because of the $1 but because of money a new program administered by Creative Health Services Inc. - for which Tyson works – had advanced to help her 19-year-old daughter stay enrolled at Delaware Valley College.
"Every time I'm with you, I cry," Taylor said.
In Pottstown, the obstacles Taylor faces in keeping her household together are hardly unique. Social-service agencies estimate as many as 30 percent of students in the Montgomery County town have to cope with what they call "housing insecurity." It is marked by frequent moves during the school year, doubling up on couches, living in motels, or occasional slides into homelessness.
The new school year has brought a new social-services campaign to better identify families such as Taylor's and find creative ways to bring them stability, such as helping parents find work or deal with landlord issues and overdue bills.
The $200,000 initiative is funded by the Siemer Institute for Family Stability and the United Way of Greater Philadelphia and Southern New Jersey. It is run by Creative Health Services in Pottstown, which is paying for social workers such as Tyson and for emergency relief for up to 35 families. It uses an innovative model that Siemer, part of a foundation started by an Ohio philanthropist, has launched in 47 communities nationwide. This is the first in Pennsylvania.
Poverty is rampant
Experts say few, if any, communities in the greater Philadelphia region are more in need than Pottstown, a city of roughly 22,000 by the Schuylkill where poverty and homelessness have steadily risen in the years since it lost its luster as an iron- and steelmaking center of the last two centuries.
The elegant Queen Anne and Gothic mansions that once sheltered captains of industry still line High Street, leading up to the gates of the elite Hill School. But the cramped, timeworn rowhouses on Pottstown's side streets and back alleys tell a different story.
Linda Abram of North Penn United Way said 21.5 percent of children under 18 there live in poverty, almost four times the rate in the rest of the county. And the median family income of $42,000 is only about 60 percent of that of the rest of the county.
It's typical for housing-insecure children to move as many as four times during a school year, causing them to miss classes or fall behind in homework.
"Suburban homelessness is a new area for people working with homelessness, but it's becoming big quickly," said Shane Burroughs of the Bucks County Intermediate Unit, a state liaison for dealing with child homelessness issues in the region. He said that although official records show 3,745 homeless children in a five-county area, they don't include "couch hopping" kids who move frequently in a school year.
In Pottstown, experts blame rising levels of homelessness on its location along the Route 422 expressway. It is a crossroads for transient people moving among Philadelphia, Reading, and other cities in Eastern Pennsylvania. It also has numerous low-budget motels and a growing social-services infrastructure, such as a Salvation Army shelter, that serves the poor and also attracts them.
"People will say they have family and friends or grew up here, or it's nice here, or there are more services here than in bigger cities," said Holly Lee, family services coordinator for the Pottstown School District.
Lee said she works with children who have moved between Pottstown and nearby Norristown, Philadelphia, or even out of state, sometimes disappearing then showing up again in the middle of a school year.
"The fact that we have 30 percent of our families in the community facing housing instability, we know this has a major impact on a child's ability to succeed in school," said Jeffrey Sparagana, Pottstown schools superintendent.
Program officials say an array of issues - some large, some small - keep struggling and often jobless families on the move and harm their children's performance in school, thus threatening to continue the cycle of poverty.
Stay in the house
In the case of Taylor, the money and support from the program has helped her family - including her husband, who suffered a series of layoffs and makes $14 an hour - stay in its narrow rowhouse on Queen Street.
Last school year, Taylor said, her family - which includes two other daughters, 13 and 9, and a 5-year-old son - had their electricity shut off twice. Once, they checked into a motel, and once the children came home to a dark house for two weeks. Taylor had to arrange for the school to send a van to pick up her daughter at the motel.
"It affects kids in school," she said. "I had to explain [to teachers] if they were crying a lot more."
Today, the Taylors are still 10 months behind on their $950-a-month rent but are working with the landlord on a repayment plan. The fingerprinting trip was to enable Taylor to find work in a school cafeteria that would help the long-struggling family get back on its feet.
Taylor said Tyson had helped her with other small stuff, even taking her to a laundromat when her machine broke down.
"They're helping with a lot of things I can't do," Taylor said.
Nothing has meant so much, though, as the $4,200 loan for her oldest daughter's college tuition. Her daughter has a partial scholarship, and her mother-in-law offered to tap her 401(k) to pay the difference. But it won't be available until November.
Although the tuition has nothing to do with the family's housing issues, "Our executive director thought it was great that she had the opportunity to go to college," Tyson said.
"So she wouldn't be like us," her mother added.
BY THE NUMBERS
Housing security initiatives sponsored nationwide by the Siemer Institute for Family Stability
Percentage of children under 18 in Pottstown who live in poverty
Homeless children in Philadelphia, Bucks, Montgomery, Chester, and Delaware Counties
SOURCE: North Penn United Way, Bucks County Intermediate Unit