An analysis of homeless student data collected by Washington state school districts shows the problem continuing to grow statewide.
The advocacy group Columbia Legal Services looked at data reported by local school districts to state education officials over five school years, ending with 2010-11.
The state’s large urban counties – Pierce, King, Snohomish, Spokane and Clark – accounted for more than half of the more than 26,000 homeless Washington students counted during the 2010-11 school year. But almost one-third of the state’s homeless students lived in rural areas, according to the report from Columbia.
Tacoma counted 1,273 homeless students. Only the Seattle School District had more, with 1,324 homeless students.
The percentage of Washington students classified as homeless in 2010-11 was up nearly 20 percent from the previous year and more than 50 percent over the five-year span, according to the report.
“The impact this has on families needs to be highlighted,” said Columbia’s Katara Jordan. “This is an issue that affects everyone. It hurts communities.”
The school data counts students classified as homeless under the federal McKinney-Vento Act, which uses a broad definition of student homelessness. It includes all students who lack a “fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence.”
The definition includes:
• Children living on the streets, in cars or in emergency shelters, as well as those in motels or campgrounds.
• Families that are doubled up in crowded conditions with other families or living in substandard housing – for example, a dwelling that lacks running water.
• Children who are awaiting foster care placement, usually within the first 30 days of a child being removed from a home.
“Even though we don’t typically think of individuals who fit all these definitions as homeless, the law recognizes them as homeless,” Jordan said. That’s because the law recognizes that all those living situations can have a profound impact on students’ ability to focus on school.
Mary Grant, teen outreach director for the Tacoma-based Camp Fire Orca Council, has been working with homeless youths for a dozen years. Grant said she’s watched as housing for unaccompanied teens has diminished as financial issues forced some teen housing providers to shut down.
“They are living in dangerous situations,” she said, adding that many of the kids she works with have been the victims of trauma or are running from parents with substance abuse or mental health issues. “They are fearful they will be snatched up and thrown into foster care.”
Many are “couch surfing,” moving from one friend’s home to another. Some sleep in unheated garages or farm buildings.
Grant said a coalition of government and social service providers is working to close the housing gap for Pierce County’s homeless teens. Efforts to reopen some previously closed houses and allow youth to obtain housing vouchers are under way.
She said she’s seen a lot of false starts over the years, but she’s hopeful that the latest efforts will succeed.
In Olympia, a new partnership between the city and the nonprofit Family Support Center will mean a new emergency shelter for families with kids 17 and younger.
The city is offering more than $550,000 in block grant funds, along with an unused city building on the edge of downtown Olympia, that will be transformed into a new facility that will offer families both emergency shelter and low-cost apartments, said Matt Hornyak, development director for the Family Support Center. He said the goal is to get the new facility operating within one to two years.
Debby Gaffney works as liaison for homeless kids in the North Thurston School District, which counted 344 McKinney-Vento students in 2010-11. Many families in her suburban district are experiencing poverty for the first time, due to job loss and the stagnant economy, she said.
Most of the students she works with are doubling up with relatives or friends. That often means frequent moves, as living situations grow tense over time.
She said it’s important that children from those families have options: “They can choose to stay in their school of origin, or go to their (new) neighborhood school.”
McKinney-Vento ensures homeless kids free transportation to and from school. Gaffney said educators encourage kids to stay in their school of origin due to the stability school provides.
“They don’t lose ground,” Gaffney said. “They keep the same friends.”
Federal funding under McKinney-Vento is limited. In 2011-12, for example, the state distributed just over $700,000 to 23 of the state’s 295 school districts. Grant money can be used only for educational support, not for transportation. School districts bear those costs on their own.
“Schools need more support in helping to implement the (McKinney-Vento) act,” Jordan said.
More affordable housing is one answer, but not the only one, she added. She cited a need for more collaboration between schools and housing agencies.