When there's homework but no home

Homeless student numbers on rise in Clark County

By Tyler Graf, Columbian county government reporter

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photoHomeless students in Clark County — click to enlarge.

Did you know?

• Passed in 1987, the McKinney-Vento Act requires states to ensure students have equal access to education by tearing down the barriers and stigma that stand in their way.

• Districts are obligated by Title I and McKinney-Vento to set aside enough resources to adequately support homeless families.

• School districts are required to hire homeless liaisons and provide some form of reliable transportation for students to and from school, regardless of where the students live, at the district’s expense. Homeless students are allowed to continue attending their school, even if they move outside the district.

It’s 7 o’clock on a drizzly mid-November night, and Jessica Richey is trying to console her ill daughter.

Seven-year-old Saakkaaya Richey is running a fever, and her lolling head moves from mom’s lap to a nearby blanket. The little girl, with reddish eyes and a cough, will probably miss a day of school.

She rarely skips a day, and, given her circumstances, that’s amazing. For Jessica and her kids — Saakkaaya; her twin brother, Ezekiel, who goes by Zeke; and 12-year-old Isaac — it’s an added wrinkle to an already chaotic routine.

The Richey family is homeless.

They’re part of a growing — or, some might say, better documented — group statewide. There are more than 1,100 homeless students in Clark County, and, school officials across the county say, that number is on the rise. Statewide, the uptick tracks a similar trajectory. There are more than 27,000 homeless students in Washington, a 9,000-student increase in the past five years.

But as the number increases, there’s little extra money available to meet the growing needs. School districts are on the hook for the extra costs, mostly in the form of transportation.

Identifying these families before they reach crisis level is important, district officials say. Kids who couch surf — sleep over at the homes of friends or family — are the top feeder into the shelter system, according to the state’s Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction. Catching them is a way to prevent long-term homelessness.

There’s no one-size-fits-all approach for working with homeless students, said Anne Galvas, Vancouver Public School’s homeless liaison. Divorce, foreclosures, domestic violence, substance abuse, among many other factors, can all cause students to end up homeless.

The Richey kids typify the homeless experience.

Since the beginning of the 2013-2014 school year, they’ve bumped between several temporary residences. The last two have been shelters, where Jessica and her kids have received nighttime beds, food and a little entertainment. Their time at the shelters is limited to 30 to 60 days, however.

Faced with an unknown future, Jessica has maintained an optimistic outlook, which she shares with her kids.

“My kids are pretty strong and awesome,” she said, with Saakkaaya by her side. “They’ve been pretty good about being able to keep up their grades.”

That’s not the norm, district officials say, especially for students who, like the Richey kids, are considered children in crisis. Not only did they lack a place to call their own, they didn’t know where they’d be staying in two months.

“It’s been pretty stressful on the kids,” Jessica said, seated in a communal area at the Winter Hospitality Overflow center in Orchards.

As Saakkaaya rests on a chair coughing, a baby wails in the background. The entrance of St. Andrew Lutheran Church, which houses the shelter, is alive with activity.

“It’s been a bit of a challenge with us sleeping here,” she said.

But the biggest struggle comes from a daily commute that requires the kids to hop two C-Tran buses.

The kids attend schools in Vancouver, but each day’s commute takes up to three hours. Complicating matters, Jessica works nights providing security at sporting events so, on occasion, she can’t escort her kids. That duty is left to Isaac, the oldest, who leaves middle school early some days to corral Saakkaaya and Zeke for the long ride home.

“It’s really hard just getting to school,” Isaac said. “At one point (at the beginning of the year), we were in La Center, and we had to wake up at 6 o’clock in the morning and catch a connector. My school doesn’t even start until 9.”

Jessica says the school district does a good job of coordinating resources for her kids. Officials take measures to discreetly hand out bus passes and school supplies to homeless students, and they provide information about local nonprofits that can help.

But, as school officials tell it, the growing numbers make it difficult to keep up with demand.

Addressing need

District officials are better than they’ve been in the past at identifying and documenting students who fit the federal government’s definition of homeless, they say. Teachers are trained to recognize the warning signs, such as constant tardiness, tattered clothes or failing grades.

“A couple of years ago, it felt like we were missing kids,” said Michele DeShaw, homeless liaison for Evergreen Public Schools. “We’ve made such an effort to train employees in the district.”

Identifying students, and providing them with an “adequate education,” is a requirement of the federal government’s McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act.

The law takes into consideration a variety of situations ranging from students living on the streets to those who are couch surfing for a few weeks because mom and dad are between apartments. Few homeless students live on the streets, advocates say, but doubled-up families — ones staying with family or friends — are the most likely to end up living in a car or at a shelter.

The Richey family was doubled up at the beginning of the school year.

At the time, they commuted from La Center to Vancouver. They were staying with friends temporarily and didn’t want to switch school districts. Federal law requires school districts to pay for homeless students’ transportation, even if they move away.

At Vancouver Public Schools, the district spends roughly $300,000 on transportation. It’s the district’s single-largest expense for homeless students, said Karla Schlosser, the district’s administrator of special services. While transportation most often comes in the form of a bus ride, districts have been known to coordinate taxis to shuttle students.

“If (students) start in the district but move someplace else, we’re obligated to make it happen,” Schlosser said. “We can’t talk to the families and say, ‘Is it really in the best interest of your child to ride on the bus for five hours to get here?’ If that family is adamant, then we’re responsible.”

Although it’s costly for school districts, the assistance has been a godsend to Jessica, she said. Her kids have been able to keep their grades up, despite their living situation.

Jessica counts herself among the fortunate ones because she sees her kids off to school everyday. “Getting an education is very, very important to us, so even with all this going on, we’ve been going to school every day — except when we’re sick,” she said.

Firsthand experience

The resources aren’t cheap, officials say, but they’re intended to prevent students from reaching crisis level. In recent years, school districts throughout the county have spent money on everything from steel-toed boots for an Evergreen student to rent for a Vancouver senior who was living on his own.

Lydia Sanders, the liaison for Battle Ground Public Schools, has a feel for what the students are going through.

When Sanders was 16, she was homeless. Living on the streets, she rummaged through dumpsters for food. One of 10 siblings, Sanders’ early life lacked stability.

By the time high school rolled around, with its caustic mix of adolescent angst and insecurity, she was entirely on her own. Looking back on it, Sanders said it was a miracle she didn’t end up hooked on drugs or pregnant. Now she works to provide the sorts of resources she never had access to.

“I’m careful not to enable these students,” she said. “That’s something I take very seriously — not to enable folks, but to help them to move on with the next phase of their lives. There’s a big difference.”

Her time as a liaison is spent talking to parents and kids, filling backpacks with school supplies and training employees on identifying at-risk students poised to fall through the cracks. About a third of her cases come from referrals, while the others come from parents who self-report themselves as homeless.

Chaos at home

With roughly 400 cases, Galvas, Vancouver’s homeless liaison, sees students from all walks of life. Few homeless students eat out of dumpsters. Most are couch surfing with their parents.

The one thing they share in common, Galvas said, is that chaos permeates the core of their home lives.

Schools become the students’ safety net, she said.

“When their home lives are so chaotic — when they get here, school is one of the most stable places they have,” she said.

The Richey family has simply fallen on hard times, but mom Jessica is working to dig herself out of her financial burdens.

Since October, she’s worked a part-time security job. She’s worried she may lose it as she struggles to take care of her three kids and find an affordable place to live.

“It seems like I’m in this (situation) right now where I’m trying to fight for this job,” she said. “It took me so long to get it.”

What keeps her motivated is creating a brighter future for her kids. Although they’re doing well in school right now, statistics suggest they’re more likely to fall behind when they reach high school. One-third of homeless students repeat a grade, according to state figures, and they’re less likely to graduate.

There is a silver lining for Jessica, Saakkaaya, Zeke and Isaac. In January, the family was approved for a housing program through Share ASPIRE. She’ll pay 30 percent of the rent when she and her family move in.

Jessica has learned to take her situation one day at a time and not to expect handouts. But she’s appreciative of any help she receives and thankful her family has stayed together.

“Thank God we haven’t had to sleep outside yet,” she said. “The most important thing is we’re here as a family and my kids are getting to school.”