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Wednesday, February 28, 2024
Feb. 28, 2024

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Washington legislators seek to increase fund for homeless students, their families

By , Columbian staff reporter

Washington legislators are looking to increase their investments in a first-of-its-kind program that works to alleviate homelessness for students and their families.

Since 2016, the Homeless Student Stability Program has funded grants to school districts and local agencies. The funding is currently $4.4 million, but housing advocates say that is not enough to support people experiencing homelessness in the state.

In the concluding days of the 105-day legislative session, the House is proposing to increase the program to $10 million, similar to what housing advocates want. The Senate’s budget proposes a $2 million hike.

Both plans are a one-time funding model. Housing advocates, like the nonprofit Building Changes, see a need for an ongoing stream.

“Most people do not think of homelessness as kids brushing their teeth in a gas station restroom after a restless night in a parent’s car,” Daniel Zavala, executive director of Building Changes, said in a news release. “For students to achieve academically, they need stable housing so they can focus on their studies. These programs ensure that every young person has a fair shot at success.”

The Homeless Student Stability Program is two funding streams through the Office of Homeless Youth and the Office of Public Instruction. The entities then send funding to school districts and agencies to provide comprehensive housing and educational support services to students and families that may otherwise be unavailable.

The program is the first of its kind in the United States. It is designed to promote partnerships between school districts and housing systems so that they can directly provide student resources, and not duplicate services.

Historically, and in other states, the two entities often work separately.

“(The program) is a way to really engage and get to the local level to really support the local community and the schools … and really engage with the folks who are needing those services. Together (the entities can) tailor their response,” said Liza Burell, managing director of programs for Building Changes.

With more money, Burell said more communities in rural areas and more youths of color could be served.

More local support staff could be added, too.

“When the funding gets down to the community-based organization or the school building, it really can support additional staff who are truly focused and intentional about working with youth, families and students,” said Burell.

Building Changes data shows that the program assisted 473 households, including 761 homeless students, in the most recent funding cycle. Of the households that left a housing program, 66 percent did so with a stable place to live.

Since 2016, 6,145 kids in 13 school districts have been served by the Homeless Student Stability Program. Locally, the Council for the Homeless has received grants and worked with Evergreen and Vancouver public schools.

The grant funding also increases the school districts’ capacity to identify students and families experiencing homelessness. The Council relies on the districts to identify and refer families needing additional assistance.

Youth and Family Fund

The House budget also adds $1 million to the state’s Washington Youth and Family Fund, created in 2004. The fund currently receives $4 million.

Building Changes administers the fund, which has worked in tandem with the Homeless Student Stability Program.

It targets young people who may not be living with their guardians, as well as families.

“Both (funding streams) work to support similar populations because we know that youth and families experiencing homelessness are also in our schools…. In many ways, (both funding programs) are an opportunity to get the dollars to where young people might be showing up, whether through our schools or organizations,” said Burell.

The legislative session ends Sunday, and lawmakers are working to unite the House and Senate’s proposals and pass a two-year budget to send to Gov. Jay Inslee to sign. The final budget will not be announced until this weekend.

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This story was made possible by Community Funded Journalism, a project from The Columbian and the Local Media Foundation. Top donors include the Ed and Dollie Lynch Fund, Patricia, David and Jacob Nierenberg, Connie and Lee Kearney, Steve and Jan Oliva, The Cowlitz Tribal Foundation and the Mason E. Nolan Charitable Fund. The Columbian controls all content. For more information, visit columbian.com/cfj.