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Lake Washington School District, state sees spike in homeless students

Lake Washington School District - Contributed
Lake Washington School District
— image credit: Contributed

Most people envision panhandlers and adults sleeping in doorways in downtown Seattle when they think of the homeless. The vision of a homeless first grader is not readily available to most.

But the numbers released this past week by the Washington State Superintendent of Public Instruction’s office paint a stark picture of homeless students in Eastside school districts in 2011-2012. And current numbers are even more severe.

“As of Friday, Feb. 8 we have 209 students identified as homeless under the McKinney Vento Act; last year on Feb. 10, we had 169,” said Lake Washington School District (LWSD) spokesperson Kathryn Reith. “We had been running about 10 percent higher this year than last until a jump after winter break raised the number.”

Under the federal McKinney-Vento Act, all school districts are required to track the number of students identified as homeless in their district, and they also have certain obligations to those homeless students.

McKinney-Vento defines a student as homeless if he or she lacks a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence.

In practical terms, the student is classified as homeless if he or she lives in emergency or transitional shelters; motels, hotels, trailer parks or camping grounds; shared housing due to loss of housing or economic hardship; hospitals secondary to abandonment or awaiting foster care placement; cars, parks, public spaces, abandoned buildings, substandard housing or similar situations; or public or private places not ordinarily used as sleeping accommodations for humans.

The count for 2011-2012 was already at a high level for the Eastside.

“For the four Eastside school districts I looked at, 686 students were identified as homeless during the 2011-12 school year,” said policy Director Kelly Rider of the Housing Development Consortium. “A large number of young kids are homeless particularly in the Lake Washington School District.”

The LWSD led the way with an estimated 213 homeless kids, Bellevue was second with 185 and the Northshore School District (NSD) has 151 homeless students.

“We do have a larger overall enrollment than our neighboring districts, which may explain the higher number,” said Reith. “Where our concern lies first is in how we as a school district can help students continue to learn and have stability during the school day while their families are working to regain stability for the rest of their day. Second, if we can help connect the family to services that can help them meet their basic needs, we want to do that.”

The trend during the past five years has been increasing, according to Reith. In 2006-2007 there was believed to be 27-28 students identified as homeless. But that trend could be due to the efforts by the LWSD in tracking the problem.

“We have also been working on doing a better job of identifying homeless students, so it’s hard to tell how much the increases in homelessness have been and how much (better we have gotten) at finding which students and families are homeless,” said Reith.

Some of the resources the district can help with are free breakfasts and lunches at school through a federal program, school supplies, Pantry Packs for weekends, Basic Need Packs, including toiletries and other essentials, transportation needs, school athletic and club participation fees at the secondary level, summer school or extra tutoring, as well as helping families connect with community resources to meet the needs of their situation.

Many of these items are provided through fundraising by other organizations like the PTSA, Lake Washington Schools Foundation and other groups.

The numbers released by the state on the 2011-2012 school year were alarming to officials who work with homeless youth daily.

“These numbers are high but they don’t represent all the kids in the community that are homeless,” said President and CEO of Friends of Youth Terry Pottmeyer. “A lot of kids don’t report that they are in need of stable housing.”

Friends of Youth is an Eastside non-profit organization committed to helping homeless kids.

It can be very difficult for kids to come forward and it may be easy to keep their situation concealed from school administration.

“Of course, as with most homelessness data, these numbers too are likely under-estimates, as it only includes students who identified themselves as homeless to a school staff member,” said Rider. “Many other kids may be living in their family’s car, for instance, but be unwilling to admit it to their peers or teachers.”

The most striking thing about the numbers from 2011-2012 are how many are of the younger age levels. Twenty pre-kindergarten students were listed as homeless, while nearly 60 were between kindergarten and third grade. Bellevue had the most kindergartners with 21, while Issaquah had the most first graders with 19.

One of the most stunning trends in the numbers was how the numbers decline as the kids get older, but that could be due to how willing those kids are to admitting they are homeless. LWSD had the most homeless kids on the Eastside in grades 2, 3 and 9. LWSD was also anomalous as it nearly doubled the next closest district’s total with 23 seniors in high school reporting they were homeless.

“Many older kids want to continue to fit in,” said Pottmeyer. “They want to do everything they can to appear normal and won’t self report. Some are couch surfing and living with someone else. They don’t think they are homeless.”

Pottmeyer said that during the past two years Friends of Youth has seen a dramatic 48 percent increase in the use of their services. The organization has outreach vans and a new drop-in shelter in Redmond where homeless youth can get a shower and food among other essential support. Friends of Youth also has an underage home in Kenmore for boys with five beds, and a home for girls in Bellevue.

Washington state receives about $950,000 per year from the federal government to help homeless students. That money is given to districts in the form of competitive grants, with money going to districts with the greatest need.

The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction stated that 27,390 students reported being homeless statewide during the 2011-2012 school year. That number is up 5.1 percent from 2010-11 and up 46.7 percent from 2007-08.

 

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