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Homeless Children’s Education Fund Aids Pittsburgh’s Youth

Photo courtesy The Homeless Children’s Education Fund (HCEF)
Photo courtesy The Homeless Children’s Education Fund (HCEF)

AJ Jefferson
AJ Jefferson

It is hard to focus on learning when you are worried about where you are going to live. In Allegheny County, there are 3,122 youth experiencing homelessness according to AJ Jefferson, CEO of the Homeless Children’s Education Fund (HCEF). The nonprofit is dedicated to serving children and youth experiencing homelessness in Southwestern Pennsylvania and will be celebrating their 25th anniversary in 2024. To learn more about their mission, who they serve and programming, North Hills Monthly spoke with Jefferson.

North Hills Monthly (NHM): Can you tell our readers a bit about the Homeless Children’s Education Fund?

AJ Jefferson: (Jefferson): The Homeless Children’s Education Fund (HCEF) advances the education of children and youth experiencing homelessness, guiding them to be productive, empowered citizens. HCEF operates with the belief that community collaboration is essential in helping children and youth overcome the obstacles of homelessness, develop resilience, and reach their full potential in life and learning.

With multiple programs, such as the Hope Through Learning Awards, the Backpack and School Supplies Distribution Program, the TEEN CEO (Career Exploration Opportunity) program and the Mobile Learning Program, along with several Learning Centers throughout Allegheny County, we are grateful for the support of community foundations, corporations and individuals helping to expand these programs.

NHM: Who does the organization serve?

Jefferson: Youth (ages 0-24) and their families experiencing homelessness in Southwestern Pennsylvania. We currently provide educational, mental health and emergency services to more than 600 students with the goal to expand to 750 students in 2024.

NHM: What other organizations do you work with?

Jefferson: HCEF partners with nearly 50 organizations including shelters, elementary, high schools, post-secondary schools, and out of school time organizations offering our educational programs and opportunities to children, youth and families experiencing homelessness. We seek to break the cycle of homelessness one tutoring session at a time.

NHM: How do the services work? If someone knows someone who needs your services, what should they do?

Jefferson: We have compiled a list of resources on our website,, for educators, counselors, direct service providers and anyone in the Pittsburgh region looking to support families experiencing homelessness. Someone who knows of a family in need can refer a child through our website.

Winnie’s Wagon
Winnie’s Wagon

One service in particular is our Mobile Learning Program, Winnie’s Wagon, the region’s first high-tech mobile classroom, which provides free, one-on-one tutoring to K-8 students. In partnership with the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh, the program is designed to bring educational support directly to students experiencing homelessness and further the reach of HCEF into the community. The HCEF team meets the students where they are—in parks, on porches, in libraries—to provide the support needed to maintain their education.

NHM: How can others get involved?

Jefferson: Educate yourselves and others on the root causes of homelessness. Advocate for systemic change. Learn about solutions from groups like HCEF, SchoolHouse Connection, the National Low Income Housing Coalition, ACTION Housing, etc. Call your legislators, form local activist groups and vote. 

Donate to organizations, such as HCEF, that are working hard to help children escape homelessness and maintain stable housing (

NHM: How are you funded? Any special events or fundraisers coming up?

Jefferson: We rely on the support of community foundations, individual donors, and corporations. Coming into the New Year, please consider HCEF as we continue our critical work of creating educational opportunities and safe spaces that allow the youth experiencing homelessness to succeed in school and life.

This year, we will celebrate our 25th anniversary with our Champions for Children Silver Jubilee Gala, presented by Dollar Bank on Saturday, June 1, 2024, at the Westin Pittsburgh.

And, every October, we host the YOU CAN Campaign for Homeless Children’s Awareness Month. The month begins with a public stand up demonstration where 150 community members and volunteers unite their voices for the voiceless. We then hold several events throughout the month to bring awareness to the plight of youth homelessness in our community.

NHM: What do you want people to know about the Homeless Children’s Education Fund?

Jefferson: HCEF has several programs which aid in advancing the education of youth experiencing homelessness. In 2022, we launched the Teen CEO program (career exploration opportunities), a workforce development program that provides students real-world work experience, expands their thinking about potential careers, increases their confidence and ability to set and meet goals and prepares them for entry-level positions. By partnering with Partner4Work and other large organizations, securing the necessary resources will increase the number of students participating and extend the seasons over the next several years.

Additionally, the Homeless Education Network Collaborative Impact Grant is an alliance of community members working to improve educational opportunities and outcomes for youth experiencing homelessness. The goal is to identify issues affecting individuals ages 0-24, their parents, schools, and communities.

HCEF provides educational opportunities, but we also advocate for policies that support affordable housing, healthcare and other basic necessities that help our students thrive.

We work with local and statewide elected officials on the plight of youth experiencing homelessness, encouraging a systems-level response to their daily struggles. We fight every day to eliminate the inequitable challenges to our students’ ability to learn.

It is crucial to advocate for the youth experiencing homelessness, the region’s most vulnerable population.

NHM: Anything that you would like to add?

Jefferson: Early intervention, stable housing, access to mental health services and supportive educational environments are crucial in mitigating the negative effects of homelessness on a child’s psychological well-being.

Homelessness is a condition, not an identity, and everyone can play a role in supporting those who experience it. Awareness is just the first step.

For more information about the Homeless Children’s Education Fund visit

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