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News / Clark County News

New study finds a majority of Clark County’s homeless students are students of color

Of nearly 3,000 experiencing homelessness last year, 55% were students of color

By Mia Ryder-Marks, Columbian staff reporter, and
Griffin Reilly, Columbian staff writer
Published: November 11, 2023, 6:08am

A new study released last month shows a majority of Clark County’s homeless students are students of color.

The report, by nonprofit Building Changes, is based on school-level data and fed from Washington’s Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction.

Out of the nearly 3,000 students who experienced homelessness last year in Clark County, 55 percent (1,646) were students of color.

Across the state, nearly 40,000 students experienced housing instability last year — enough to fill up more than half of Lumen Field stadium in Seattle. Washington has the sixth largest number of homeless students in the United States, according to the report.

In response to rising homeless student populations in recent years, Clark County school districts have tried to bolster staffing and in-school resources for its most at-risk students with pandemic-era relief funding. Consistent, long-term funding to support new salaries and programs, however, remains a challenge.

Closer look

Out of the 1,206 Vancouver Public Schools students experiencing homelessness last year, 63 percent were students of color, according to the report.

In Evergreen, 58 percent of the 1,189 students experiencing homelessness last year were students of color. Battle Ground students of color make up 30 percent (about 70) of the 235 unhoused students, the report states.

Sunny Wonder, deputy director of Council for the Homeless, said there are various factors that play into students of color experiencing homelessness at greater rates in our community.

Nationally, workers of color are more likely than white workers to work in low-wage jobs, according to research from the Economic Policy Institute. Even within the same occupations, white workers often earn more than workers of color.

People of color are also more likely to be renters than homeowners due to historical dispossession and discrimination, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition. The homeownership rate for households of color in Washington is 19 percent lower than white households — 49 percent and 68 percent, respectively, according to the institute.

“With a 2 percent vacancy rate, (there is) just more difficulty in getting accepted into a place as is,” Wonder said. “If you have inconsistent income, and perhaps have been more likely to be late on your rent, that can impact whether or not you can get approved for an apartment in the future.”

Students experiencing homelessness fall behind

Of the 2,994 Clark County students who experienced homelessness last year, 77 percent reported as “doubled up,” according to the Building Changes report. Doubled up is a term used to describe children living in shared housing, such as with another family or friends, due to various crises.

One hundred and sixty-three students experienced unsheltered homelessness, the report states.

In Evergreen Public Schools and Vancouver Public Schools — the county’s two largest districts — more than half of each district’s population of students experiencing homelessness are in elementary school, according to the report.

Elementary years are considered the foundation for children; it’s where they learn basic skills, from reading to math to socializing with others. Daniel Zavala, executive director of Building Changes, said when homelessness intersects with early childhood it can ultimately impact people later in life.

“Ultimately it can lead to greater challenges later on,” he said. “In terms of content acquisition, lower graduation rates, lower postsecondary enrollment. We start to see that cascading effect of what comes later when that solid foundation isn’t built from the start.”

In addition to presenting new demographic data of students, the report provides additional insight into how homeless students fare academically alongside housed peers.

According to the report, 35 percent of homeless students in Clark County had regular attendance last year. Students who had a stable place to sleep each night had a 63 percent attendance rate.

Eleven percent of homeless students had proficiency in mathematics, compared with the 37 percent of their housed peers. Eighty-six percent of housed students were projected to graduate on time, whereas 62 percent of homeless students would walk the stage for graduation on time.

“Students that have that lack of stability and don’t necessarily have a quiet or a safe place to sleep at night are not able to acquire those fundamental building blocks,” Zavala said.

What are community initiatives to alleviate student homelessness?

Leading housing agencies, such as Council for the Homeless, partner with Clark County school districts to alleviate childhood and family homelessness.

The Homeless Student Stability Program and the Washington Youth and Families Fund are statewide programs that financially assist communities in helping alleviate youth homelessness. The program funds grants to school districts and local agencies to help support youth and families experiencing homelessness.

Council for the Homeless, the administrator of the Homeless Student Stability Program, works with school districts to ensure students and families are holistically supported. Wonder said the effort to alleviate homelessness, especially for students of color, is a community effort.

“We want to address this issue and recognize there are going to be additional barriers, and there are also going to be cultural pieces of building trust that don’t happen in a day,” she said. “How can we create space and build trust? Sometimes, it’s just being there consistently.”

What are schools doing to alleviate homelessness?

Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, homeless student populations in both the Evergreen and Vancouver school districts have increased in the hundreds, despite overall enrollment decreases in each district.

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Various policies — some local, some state, some federal — have helped address the rise: keeping food pantries at school locations stocked, new staff positions to work with students struggling academically, and helping parents find housing or work.

Both Evergreen and Vancouver, too, have recently unveiled new long-term strategic plans to guide district decision-making in the coming years. A key piece of each plan, leaders said, is an “equity lens” that upholds each major policy or financial change and must factor into how it may disproportionately impact students and families of color.

In Evergreen, district staff said students of color are prioritized for tutoring and intervention services during the school year and throughout the summer.

“Part of our district’s strategic plan specifically focuses our attention on attending to instructional, sense of belonging and other support needs that our students of color are experiencing in our schools and community,” according to a statement from an Evergreen Public Schools spokesperson Wednesday.

Despite the new policies, however, the loss of one-time federal relief funding and overall enrollment decline is already leading districts to cut such newly added support positions. To best combat rising student homelessness, especially among students of color, Zavala and other experts say consistency is key.

“One of the things in our work in education is … to make sure that the students are stable, they’re safe and whole so that they can thrive,” Zavala said. “If we don’t provide that solid foundation at the outset, things are just going to cascade from there, and the issue will only get worse.”

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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.