Snohomish County’s homeless children are widespread
How school districts work to support a growing crush of kids
To mitigate the risks, the McKinney-Vento Homeless Education Act provides support for homeless children to help them succeed academically. To qualify, children must lack a “nighttime residence that is fixed, regular or adequate.”
Whether in a tent in Granite Falls, an Everett shelter, or a friend’s couch in Arlington, more than 3,000 Snohomish County children will go to sleep tonight in a makeshift bed.
As of February, an estimated 3,300 public school students are
experiencing homelessness according to a Tribune survey of the county’s 15 districts. Many more minors who aren’t enrolled in the public school system or are too young
for school face the same challenge of thriving without the security of a permanent home.
The number of students without secure housing rose 49 percent between the 2011/2012 school year and the 2015/2016 school year, from 2,538 students to 3,789 at
year end. The trend held statewide with the number of homeless students surging 45 percent in Washington during the same period.
One in approximately 40 Snohomish County students is homeless but homeless students are spread unevenly throughout the county. About one in 10 Granite Falls students is homeless — many flock there due to special parenting and family resource programs said Sara Woolverton, the district’s director of special education, equity and civil rights. In Everett, the number is one in 24, in Monroe one in 64, and Snohomish, one in 107.
While the number of homeless youth is one concern, their ages and situations are worrisome, too, say experts.
“We used to mainly see older youth and young adults in our programs (15 or older), but now we’re seeing increasing numbers of the younger teens as well, with more 13-, 14-, 15-year-olds with nowhere else to go,” said teen shelter Cocoon House’s spokeswoman Claire Petersen in an email.
“We are seeing more complex trauma... more street-dependent youth, and an increase in mental health needs” plus “an increase in drug use and chemical dependency, with youth using substances earlier either due to parental use or to self-medicate/escape,” Petersen added.
There are many reasons students and their families end up without a permanent residence.
The primary reason is soaring housing costs paired with stagnant wages, said Cynthia Jones, Everett School District’s director of categorical programs.
While rents rose more than 28 percent, wages remained flat between 2013 and 2016 according to the Housing Consortium of Everett and Snohomish County.
“Mental illness, addiction, and domestic violence also contribute, but the main reason is that housing costs are out of the reach of many families,” Jones said in an email.
Some of the other common causes are family homelessness caused by a parent’s illness, substance abuse, family conflict and neglect,” according to Petersen.
Youth of color as well as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and questioning youth are disproportionately homeless according to the U.S. Department of Education.
Who lives where?
Snohomish County Tribune graphic
Sources: Map: Washington State GeoServices, Data: Compiled from school districts
A Tribune chart of homeless student populations as of February 2018 for each of Snohomish County’s 15
school districts, with deeper shades of red representing a higher ratio of students.
Notes in chart text: * - From 2016/2017 school year data, ** - From 2015/2016 school year data
Identifying Homeless Students
Students experiencing homelessness are called “kids in transition” (KIT) and schools identify them in many ways throughout the year.
The number of students changes almost daily, said Monroe School District spokeswoman Tamara Krache.
Districts have families fill out annual surveys and forms at registration for new students. Teachers may also identify homeless students and refer them for enrollment in McKinney-Vento services, and sometimes homeless students will approach a teacher they trust and ask for help.
“I could be taking a call anywhere from a crying parent that’s really at the end of their rope that doesn’t know where they’re sleeping tonight and have multiple children… and it may be 19 degrees tonight... or it could be the call that says, ‘my child has run away from home and I don’t know what to do’,” said Amy Perusse, a McKinney-Vento facilitator in the Everett district.
Districts are required to tally the number of homeless students but even those
numbers “are also a bit low,” according to Petersen because they “don’t include
students who don’t report
being out of their home because they don’t want to draw attention or stigma to themselves for being different, students who aren’t connected or enrolled in school, or other siblings in the home.”
The stigma can be intense: Being homeless takes an emotional and social toll after and during school. Showing up to class or playing with other kids at recess without a shower, clean clothes, enough sleep or food, or finished homework can all feel terribly painful during what is already often particularly self-conscious period.
One thing all homeless children share is an increased risk of substandard test scores, of dropping out and other negative professional and personal outcomes
after school ends.
The state is making strides in mitigating those outcomes, but homeless students still tend to lag far behind their peers. In 2016, only 53.4 percent of homeless students graduated high school compared to a 79 percent overall graduation rate according to the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI). That was an improvement over the 44.9 percent graduation rate in 2015.
Such children may be in the foster care system, shelters, sharing housing, unsheltered, living in cars or otherwise deprived of a stable spot to sleep every night.
The children are entitled to stay in their same school regardless of where they sleep each night, and the school districts are tasked with providing their transportation. Schools must also provide support to help students complete their education, which can include tutoring, on-site student advocates, and waiver of fees.
Beyond federal requirements, Snohomish County schools are serving these students in a variety of ways.
We do “a lot to keep them clothed, fed, safe and in school” -- Sara Woolverton
While all 15 districts provide mandated services such as transportation, each addresses the diverse needs of its students with a customized approach.
Liaisons have assisted with everything from sourcing motel vouchers to providing bags of food students take home to tide them over during the weekend. Some focus on health care in partnership with other agencies to ensure students have eyeglasses, transportation to
medical appointments and counseling. Some districts create special moments by ensuring their children receive holiday presents. Others who see a high number of homeless student parents, provide diapers and will even wash students’ clothes for them.
We do “a lot to keep them clothed, fed, safe and in school,” Woolverton said, a message that described efforts throughout the county.
Community efforts to stabilize families to help them avoid becoming homeless in the first place is an important piece of the solution, Petersen said. And providing housing for homeless youth, and creative housing concepts will all help youth who need permanent, safe foundations to thrive, she said.
While the government, agencies and individuals all triage and work to provide more comprehensive solutions, a growing number of children rely on their schools and communities to keep from falling further through the safety net.
In the meantime, Jones and Perusse hope the community understands something about families experiencing homelessness: “I’ve seen parents doing things I’ve never even heard of to get their kids to school and if you saw the effort they’re going to, it would change the perception of what it is to be a family going through homelessness,” Jones said.
“I see parents trying to juggle work every day without having a safe place to live … These are parents really caring about their children and doing their best to survive,” Perusse added.
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