OLYMPIA — Charles Adkins remembers when he was asked to pay $700 to stay at the dorms at The Evergreen State College during his freshman year. He panicked because he didn’t know where he’d be able to stay since he couldn’t afford it.
He was still wearing the clothes he received from the youth homeless shelter he lived in before and didn’t have a laptop.
“I was so stressed, I was failing college [worrying about] not having money to pay rent or the stress of not knowing if I could stay in the shelter for two weeks,” Adkins said.
As a student lobbyist in 2018, Adkins worked to create a bill to support students experiencing homelessness and students that have aged out of the foster care system.
It took a few years, but now that idea could become permanent. State Sen. Yasmin Trudeau, D-Tacoma, is sponsoring Senate Bill 5702, which allows public institutions like community and technical colleges and four-year institutions to create their own plan to address the needs of their students from housing to food insecurity, because data from a pilot program, launched in 2019, shows how successful it is in supporting basic needs and allowing students to finish their programs.
The bill passed the Senate on March 2 on a 46-3 vote and is in the House for consideration.
Sen. Keith Wagoner, R-Sedro-Woolley, said he opposed it because he doesn’t want to leave taxpayers on the hook for funding the program in perpetuity.
“I hope the funding issue will be addressed in the House or if the bill is returned to the Senate,” Wagoner said.
A survey in January revealed that almost half of Washington college students have experienced food or housing insecurity in the last year, and it was more common at two-year colleges.
Those experiencing housing insecurity said they were unable to pay rent or utility bills. They also reported sleeping at friends’ or relatives’ places, in cars, outside, or in shelters.
“There are so many assumptions that are made about people going to college, assuming you have a family supporting you,” Adkins said.
Adkins became homeless at age 15 after a fight with his father. Throughout high school, he lived on the streets or couch surfed before he ended up in a homeless youth center in Everett.
Adkins said he received more homelessness support during his K-12 educational career, including a case manager. Many Washington high school students don’t have that.
Washington leads the country in identifying homeless students, but received the least amount of federal funding earmarked to support them in the 2018-19 school year.
K-12 student homelessness is linked to lower graduation rates, higher rates of suspension or expulsion, and homelessness as an adult.
And many college students get even less support.
State Rep. Lillian Ortiz-Self, D-Mukilteo, who was Adkins’ high school counselor, revived his bill in 2019, creating the Supporting Students Experiencing Homelessness pilot program.
The program has doubled from its initial figure of two community technical colleges and two four-year institutions and colleges. These colleges are from different parts of the state. Colleges received from $93,000 to $108,000 or more in funding, with extra added in the 2021 legislative session.
The Washington Student Achievement Council reported that over three years, 2,500 students experiencing homelessness or who aged out of the foster care system were served by the program. More than 90% of students at four-year institutions and 85% of students at two-year institutions completed the quarter in which they received help from Supporting Students Experiencing Homelessness.
“The intent of the pilot was to understand the need, promising strategies and persistence of students who were served,” said Ami Magisos, associate director for policy and planning at the Washington Student Achievement Council. “Now that we have three years’ worth of data, there is a high number of students eligible and served and have the persistence.”
Magisos said they measure persistence from when the student initially sought support to when they finished their program.
Several states, including California, Louisiana and Tennessee, require postsecondary institutions to place students experiencing homelessness in housing. These states, along with Maine, also require institutions to prioritize these students for housing registration and to create housing plans for them.
Kelly Green, vice president of advancement at South Puget Sound Community College, said the college applied for the pilot program due to student needs.
She said the institution had funds to provide resources like showers or laundry facilities and a food pantry, but it needed funding to provide short- and long-term housing.
A South Puget Sound student experiencing homelessness will go through a “personal support center,” which brings academic and social services together, and be referred to the Supporting Students Experiencing Homelessness program. The college pays for three-month leases by partnering with apartment complexes near campus. This can be extended if the student’s personal case management plan is not working.
Green said a majority of the grant given to South Puget Sound goes to the leases. The program also has community partnerships to be able to assist students with other needs outside of basic necessities.
Mariela Barriga Chavez, director of Student Success at Highline College, said when the pilot program came out, school officials felt that the state was recognizing all students.
Highline makes students take a survey when they first enroll and asks “getting-to-know-you” questions, one of which is about a student’s housing. Depending on the answer, a student is directed to options like the Supporting Students Experiencing Homelessness program.
From there, students work with a full-time case manager who creates a plan for the college to pay for housing near campus. Students are also provided Chromebooks.
“What we are looking for is to allow students to continue their studies and for them to know that the college does not just want them to pass their classes,” Chavez said.
She said that this support is mostly for one quarter, usually from 30 to 60 days or until they have leased an apartment. Chavez also said that every student who has been supported by the program finished the academic quarter in which they received support.
Sponsor Trudeau said she experienced this herself. She went through the foster care system and lived in 11 homes before graduating from high school. When she went to college, she had anxiety during school breaks since she had nowhere to stay.
She didn’t receive guidance or support from her institution and did not finish her initial academic plan, she said, having to transfer and eventually stop school to support her family.
“I think a lot of people when they think about homelessness, they think about tents on sidewalks and not housing insecurity,” Trudeau said. “I didn’t know until years later that couch surfing was actually being homeless. Like, what do you mean? I was homeless? You had no home.”