“We have a scary increase in students experiencing homelessness. What would benefit our kids the most is the community advocating for additional funding,” said Michelle Gascon, who works with homeless students at Evergreen Public Schools. “At the end of the day, the more budget we have, the better our ability to serve our students in the way they deserve.”
A look at the numbers
School districts use a broader definition of “homelessness” than the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development uses when cataloging homeless adults. When defining students in accordance with the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act — a 1987 law outlining federal funding and regulations for homeless shelters and services — schools count students who live in hotels, in cars, at shelters or on the streets or who “couch surf” with friends or family.
According to Evergreen’s count, 54.86 of every 1,000 students are experiencing homelessness, an increase from 43.28 students in the 2018-19 school year. In Vancouver, 52.61 out of every 1,000 students are experiencing homelessness, up from 42.09 in 2018-19.
Homelessness is a shadow that lingers over children throughout the day. These students face unique barriers to access to basic school supplies and hygiene.
“As a kid, I always knew that I had a place to go home to, a place I could sleep, rest and be fed,” said Jenny Thompson, president of the nonprofit Foundation for Vancouver Public Schools. “That allowed me to focus on being a student and a normal kid. But students who don’t (have stable housing) may worry about ‘Where am I going to get my next shower?’ or fall asleep in class. Those are adult stressors on their shoulders that impact them in the classroom.”
According to the Washington Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, homeless students have higher rates of long-term expulsion and lower chances of graduating and are approximately four times more likely to drop out compared with their housed peers.
Identifying as unhoused
Homelessness in both districts is almost entirely self-identified. Teachers and other staff like bus drivers work throughout the year to spot the signs of housing instability, but a student or family member still needs to disclose their status.
In Evergreen and Vancouver, students fill out a series of forms about their family status at the beginning of the year, including a housing questionnaire. If a student indicates they sleep in a hotel or shelter or couch surf, their form gets flagged and shared with the district’s housing liaison, building counselors and the school’s Family-Community Resource coordinator, if applicable.
Family-Community Resource Centers — essentially a combination of an office, a food pantry and a classroom — help elementary school students and parents with services such as filing for insurance benefits, finding jobs and securing long-term housing. For secondary students, the Evergreen school district maintains three unaccompanied-youth coordinators who work to provide the same guidance. Vancouver has two unaccompanied-youth coordinators.
After qualifying, a student is entitled to a host of services provided by the McKinney-Vento Act, including free meals, transportation assistance and tutoring services. McKinney-Vento students also become immediately exempt from any fees accrued and can receive partial credit for certain classes.
“Our ultimate goal is to break down barriers for our students that are experiencing homelessness,” said Dayana Mora, homeless and foster care liaison for Vancouver Public Schools.
The Foundation for Vancouver Public Schools offers resources from clothing to rental assistance. For the 2022-23 academic year, the foundation budgeted $60,000 for homelessness support and stability. But the need is projected to exceed $100,000, so the foundation’s board will need to reallocate funds. Thompson said it’s the “best use” of the foundation’s funding right now due to continued high rental and home costs.
“Our biggest challenge right now is helping families with housing,” said Gascon. “Given our current climate in our area and with housing costs being so high with little availability and difficult rent assistance, that for sure puts a lot of weight on us.”
As of the 2018-19 school year, Washington received just $29.44 in federal funding per homeless pupil — the lowest of any state.
With state-provided funding decreasing to match declining enrollment and one-time federal stimulus packages drying up, these critical services end up being paid for through local levy dollars. Though double levy failures are still rare, taxpayers and school leaders alike have repeatedly expressed frustration with being held accountable for covering as much as 20 percent of their local school district’s budgets.
Family-Community Resource Centers and their staff, for example, are fully funded by levy dollars from Vancouver Public Schools.
Providing additional transportation for homeless students located outside district boundaries or coming from centers not near bus stops, too, is required by law. For Evergreen, the state provided about $30,000 for such services in 2019-20. A district spokesperson estimated the full cost for the services was around $360,000.
With a budget deficit potentially forcing Evergreen to cut nearly half its Family-Community Resource coordinators, the ability to fulfill McKinney-Vento requirements will only grow more challenging.
“It’s not a good thing when we have fewer adults supporting kids. But with McKinney-Vento, we have all these requirements, so we don’t have any room to budge,” said Gascon. “We have to provide for them no matter what.”
Struggles in reporting data
Local housing agencies say it’s difficult to determine exactly how children are homeless in Clark County due to inconsistencies in self-identification.
“Do we think the actual number is greater? Yes. Particularly with our high school students, a lot of them are unaccompanied youth and aren’t going to self-identify. We always believe this is a smaller number than what actually exists,” said Catherine MacCallum-Ceballos, family engagement coordinator for Vancouver Public Schools.
Many factors contribute to a student or family not identifying themselves as houseless, including stigma, fear of family separation and cultural reasons.
Staff in Evergreen and Vancouver each receive annual training on how to spot students who may be experiencing housing stability: falling asleep in class or on the bus, taking home large amounts of food for the weekend or carrying lots of personal items with them each day.
”There’s a stigma around homelessness, and there’s also a fear of being taken away or in some way put into a system,” MacCallum-Ceballos said. “There’s also a belief that maybe a parent or a caregiver or someone did something wrong, which is what resulted in houselessness — and we know that that’s not true.”
To help fill the gaps, school districts refer families to local organizations like the Council for the Homeless, Janus Youth Programs, St. Vincent de Paul and the Vancouver Housing Authority.
“None of us are the expert in the whole sphere of the different challenges and barriers that folks experiencing housing instability are navigating when they have children in the school district or they are an unaccompanied youth navigating instability on their own,” said Sunny Wonder, the Council for the Homeless’s deputy director. “This partnership has us working together in different capacities.”
When the council is alerted to a family experiencing homelessness, it connects with the families and finds resources to meet their housing needs. Officials also add their names to a data model that tracks people experiencing homelessness in real time.
“Experiencing homelessness as a young person is actually a predictor of future instability,” Wonder said. “Connecting with young folks as early as possible to see the light of their situation is crucial to reduce the potential likelihood of experiencing homelessness in the future.”
The Washington Legislature increased its investment toward the Homeless Student Stability Act this session, from $4.4 million to $10 million. The funding provides grants to school districts and local agencies to help support youth and families experiencing homelessness. But advocates say more money will be needed going forward.
“At the end of the day, as a school district, we operate to educate kids, but we’ve become more than that. … I feel like we’re really well supported with the resources that our community agencies have, but they need more support and more funding, too,” said Gascon.
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.