Homeless students: 40,000 attending public schools in state

OLYMPIA — Nearly every student experiences struggles at school, but almost 40,000 students in Washington face even stiffer challenges when the school day ends.

These students are homeless.

Vancouver, Washington, resident James Hill spent nights with his 16-year-old daughter and her toddler moving between the homes of friends and sleeping in a vehicle. He worried about keeping his daughter and granddaughter safe and warm at night so his daughter could have a restful sleep and be prepared for school the next day.

One of his main goals was to ensure that his daughter went to school. She is a sophomore in Vancouver’s Evergreen Public Schools.

“I tried to keep it as normal as possible for them — even though where we slept at night was not the ideal place,” he said.

Through a state housing grant, Hill was able to move into a new home with his daughter and granddaughter. This session, the Legislature determines if funding for these grants will continue. That commitment awaits passage of the 2017-19 biennial budget.

Hill became homeless in May after his landlord raised his rent. He couldn’t afford it. His daughter and granddaughter came to live with him in July. They slept in the homes of Hill’s friends and then moved to the vehicle so his daughter could be closer to school.

Without access to the Internet or a computer in their living space, completing online assignments was challenging for Hill’s daughter. Like any high school student, his daughter wanted a social life and to entertain friends, but this was difficult without a home.

Hill tried to look for housing, but faced a financial barrier. In previous years, he left apartments because he couldn’t afford the rent. He was unable to pay the fees for breaking his rent contract. His debts continued to accumulate.

Hill worked while he was homeless and found rentals he could afford. However, landlords were concerned with the past debt on his credit report and wouldn’t allow him to rent.

He contacted Peggy Carlson, the Evergreen School District’s liaison for Students in Transition, and learned about the Homeless Student Stability and Opportunity Act Grant.

Grant provides housing

Approved with bipartisan support last year by the state Legislature, the act funds housing grants that provide students and their families experiencing homelessness with housing.

This act supplements dollars allocated by the federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Education Assistance Act.

The McKinney-Vento Act is a federal law that defines homeless students as those who lack a regular nighttime residence.

Under this law, students experiencing homelessness are guaranteed the right to remain in the same school district, even if they move outside the district. Districts must enroll homeless students regardless of whether they have the required documentation and must provide transportation for these students. All school districts must appoint a homeless liaison to identify and serve students experiencing homelessness.

Each year, the U.S. Department of Education provides Washington with approximately $950,000 in McKinney-Vento grants.

Rep. Jake Fey, D-Tacoma, was the main sponsor of last year’s legislation establishing the state’s Homeless Student Stability and Opportunity Gap Act. The goal of the legislation is to provide more resources in the community to students and families experiencing homelessness, he said.

School districts applied for the housing grants in June through the state Department of Commerce; $1 million in funds were awarded to Bellingham Public Schools, Evergreen Public Schools, Everett Public Schools, and Ocean Beach School District.

Under the legislation, school districts receiving housing grants must partner with a local housing agency. The housing agencies work with families experiencing homelessness to overcome financial barriers, such as a past felony or credit issue, which prevent them from renting. To qualify, families must fall under the McKinney-Vento definition of homelessness.

Housing grants may also be used for emergency shelter, rental assistance and transportation.

Evergreen Public Schools’ Carlson said the partnership between the housing agencies and the school districts helps alleviate the intimidation or confusion of the housing process. Evergreen Public Schools refers to homeless students as “students in transition.”

“These families are in crisis and you can give them phone numbers to call, but they don’t know what to ask and they don’t know who they’re going to talk to,” she said. “Or you tell them to go to the housing agency and they don’t know where it is.” The housing agency navigators connect with families in Carlson’s office where the families are already comfortable.

The aim of the housing grant is to give homeless students some stability in their school district, according to Brandy Sincyr, a policy analyst with Columbia Legal Services. She experienced homelessness when she was a student, which inspired her to advocate for the rights of low-income individuals. She helped Columbia Legal Services work with legislators to pass this act.

The Homeless Student Stability Act also provides funds for a grant that is awarded through the state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI). These grants are geared toward providing additional dollars to fund resources for students experiencing homelessness.

Provisions in this act added a section to an existing law regarding minors and medical services to allow unaccompanied students — students not in the physical custody of a legal guardian — to access health care. Before the act was passed, children younger than 18 couldn’t receive medical treatment without the consent of a legal guardian. Now school counselors, school nurses and homeless liaisons may authorize health care services when a student’s parents aren’t available.

The act requires that districts with more than 10 unaccompanied youth to appoint a liaison to each middle and high school in the district. This liaison is responsible for identifying homeless and unaccompanied youth and connecting these students with the district liaison.

Last year, 1,076 students were recorded as homeless in Evergreen Public Schools where Hill’s daughter attends high school. Evergreen Public Schools is the sixth largest district in the state with 26,080 students enrolled.

Jennifer Beeks, outreach coordinator for Evergreen’s Orchards Elementary School, said the major problems facing her school’s families include the rising cost of rent in Vancouver and the lack of affordable housing. Beeks works with parents to overcome housing and financial barriers that may be affecting their students.

“I cannot describe how hard some of our families work and how very slowly they get ahead,” she said.

Carlson said families often live together, or “double-up,” so they can afford their rent. But because of the limited amount of space, many children sleep on couches or on the floor. “That makes it hard for kiddos to do well in school,” Carlson said.

Homelessness affects a student’s chance to succeed.

An OSPI report reveals 58.9 percent of third-graders in Washington met the math standard in 2016, while only 34.1 percent of third-graders who are homeless met math standards. This gap also exists in high schools: 21.8 percent of 11th-graders satisfied state math standards compared to 9.4 percent of homeless 11th-graders.

Effectiveness of the grants

Battle Ground, Evergreen, and Vancouver school districts applied for the housing grant together and received $500,000. The three districts partnered with Council for the Homeless, which helps people find safe and affordable housing in Vancouver. Since September, the district and the council have sought housing for 74 families; a majority of these families have been successfully housed.

“We really do all that we can to help stabilize families,” said Kate Budd, deputy director of the Council for the Homeless. “Students in particular who don’t have a safe and stable place to live, have a disadvantage to their schooling.”

Council for the Homeless hired a navigator for each district to meet with families experiencing homelessness at the schools.

Carlson said the housing grant has been useful in her district.

“We housed families that I know would still be homeless right now if we didn’t have that grant,” she said. “We have families that stay homeless for months and months and months.”

James Hill was a recipient of an Evergreen Public Schools housing grant. After contacting Carlson, Hill was connected with a Council for the Homeless navigator in the beginning of October. The council determined he qualified for the funds.

The council’s navigator worked with Community Housing Resource Center to negotiate Hill’s debt. The center offers counseling services and education to help people become financially self-sufficient.

Eventually, Hill’s debt was paid off by the Council for the Homeless and it put him and his family up in a hotel for two weeks while the landlord prepared his apartment for move-in.

Hill moved into an apartment with his daughter and granddaughter in late October.

Hill said he and his daughter felt a sense of ease as they walked into their unit. “It was just a feeling of ownership,” Hill said. “We have our place now. We don’t have to sleep in a vehicle any longer.”

Hill signed up for Internet service and his daughter can do her homework now from the apartment. Hill was recently offered a job as an account manager; he begins working this month. “I don’t think I would have been able to get this position if I didn’t have a place,” he said. “I wouldn’t have anywhere to put my clothes or get ready every day.”

He attributes his family’s recent successes to the Homeless Student Stability Program and hopes these grants will be offered to more families.

“One thing that I always tell my daughter is never wait until someone does it for you, but if someone opens up the door for you, you have to walk through it.”

Student homelessness: The statistics

Student homelessness is a challenge faced by school districts across Washington state.

According to a report by the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI), nearly 40,000 students were reported to be homeless last year, which could almost fill Safeco Field. Of that total, 2,134 were identified as living unsheltered within such conditions as campgrounds, abandoned buildings, parks, cars, substandard housing, and temporary trailers.

African American and Pacific Islander/Native Hawaiian student populations had the highest rate of homelessness in Washington in 2016.

Nearly 10 out of every 100 African American students and nine out of 100 Pacific Islander/Native Hawaiian students were homeless, compared to three of 100 white students, five of 100 Hispanic students, and one out of 100 Asian students. Eight of 100 American Indian/Alaska Native students experienced homelessness.

(This story is part of a series of news reports from the Washington State Legislature provided through a reporting internship sponsored by the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association Foundation. Contact reporter Grace Swanson at grace.swanson47@gmail.com)