Kids on the streets: Fighting homelessness an uphill battle

By Brian Soergel | Feb 17, 2016
Photo by: Brian Soergel A young passer-by takes a look at “Annie,” a mannequin outside Firestation Gourmet Deli in Mill Creek. She symbolizes a homeless teen as part of Cocoon House’s “Take a Closer Look” initiative.

The following article is the third in an eight-part series produced by The Beacon on teen issues. Called “Turn Up The Volume,” the series aims to educate our readers while offering information – and hope – to those needing help. – Ed.

How do you imagine homeless teens?

Drug-addled kids gathering in parks, on street corners, blowing into their hands to keep warm, with no jobs, no prospects, no schooling and seeming not a care about the future?

There’s that.

But there’s another side to teen homelessness in Snohomish County.

For many, finding themselves on the streets is the result of one thing: unstable homes.

“It’s not just not literal homelessness a lot of times,” said Nicolas Quijano of Cocoon House, which offers the only licensed homes in the county for unaccompanied teens ages 12-17.

“It’s just familial problems, erratic parenting or conflict relating to child’s behavior, sexual orientation, legal issues, drug problems, school problems.”

Quijano recalls meeting one teen girl who came for help. She argued with her mother, and her father was out of the picture most of the time. She needed to get a job and, since she was graduating from high school this year, wanted to apply to college. But her home situation sapped her energy. So she split.

“When you don’t know where you’re going to live, it’s hard to think about the next day,” Quijano said. “When you don’t know where you’re going to sleep at night, how can you think about what else you’re going to do?”

Quijano placed her in one of Cocoon House’s shelters in Everett, and trained counselors soon saw results. They started conversations between mother and daughter, who are now back to living together.

She’ll graduate this year, and Cocoon House paid for her SAT test and helped with college applications. She spoke at her school's Martin Luther King Day assembly and now wants to work in social advocacy.

“Just having that adult who was willing to listen to her and support her and that fall-back as far as having a place of stability has given her the confidence to branch out and achieve a little bit and feel that she has the ability to realize her potential,” Quijano said.

Numbers are spiking

Cocoon House does what it can – and has many success stories like that one – but is fighting an uphill battle as the number of homeless teens continues its troubling rise.

In addition to youth who are actually living on the streets, local schools also count those as homeless students who are “doubled up,” meaning that they don't have a home of their own and are sharing housing with someone else because they can't afford any other option.

“Typically, this means a family of multiple members living in one room of someone else's apartment,” said Cynthia Jones, director of the homeless education program for Everett Public Schools.

Numbers released earlier this month by the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction show that in 2014-15, 35,511 Washington students – 3.3 percent of the state’s public K-12 population – were counted as homeless. The number is a 9.1 percent increase from 2013-14 and a staggering 63 percent increase from 2009-10.

All districts are required to have a homeless liaison to identify, enroll and set up services for homeless students who, as you might expect, tend to do worse in school. The four-year graduation rate for homeless students in the class of 2015 was 51.9 percent; for all students, it was 78.1 percent.

Everett Public Schools, which includes those in Mill Creek, reported 977 homeless students, while the Edmonds School District reported 600 and the Mukilteo School District 227.

What’s happening?

“There are a number of factors that contribute to the increase,” Jones said. “Even though employment has increased, salaries have not. Housing costs have gone up as the economy has improved, leaving more families unable to afford adequate housing. And there is not sufficient low-income housing to meet the demand.”

Specific reasons for the increase are difficult to determine at the state level, said Randy Dorn, superintendent of public instruction.

Although family instability is certainly a factor, many community factors – lack of affordable housing options, unemployment or underemployment, available local services – may contribute. In addition, economic recessions typically hit the poorest people for the longest time.

“These kids sleep in campgrounds or under highways or on friends’ sofas,” Dorn said. “And that can lead to them repeating grades or dropping out of school. We must make sure that school can be a stable influence in their lives and that they don’t fall behind.”

The 1987 federal McKinney-Vento Act ensures that homeless children have access to the same free, appropriate public education, including a public preschool education, as provided to other children and youths.

It provides support for homeless children and youth to continue their education without interruption or barriers. Homeless families or those in temporary living situations due to economic circumstances have certain rights or protections under federal law.

McKinney-Vento defines a student as homeless if he or she lacks a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence. The law requires that homeless students cannot be separated from other students.

Where feasible, the student can remain in the district he or she was in before becoming homeless, and is provided transportation to and from school.

At Jackson High School in Mill Creek, teacher Bill Trueit said the district is spending about $1 million on transporting students who were classified as being homeless. “Studies show that students who are homeless do better if their school home can remain stable,” he said.

“Whenever the topic is brought up, we are told that the numbers of homeless students is going up. And due to privacy laws, teachers don't always know who is homeless.”

Last year, Everett Public Schools served 987 homeless students at some time during the school year.

Jones, of Everett Public Schools – which has more than 19,000 students – said the district’s own numbers reported 646 students actively enrolled who qualified under McKinney-Vento as of Jan. 6. The cumulative number of homeless students enrolled at some time during the current school year was 802 as of Jan. 6.

“This is a population that is very transient, as you might expect,” Jones said. “This is about 100 more students than we had at the same time last year. We have seen a steady increase over the last few years. We are continuing to run about 100 students higher compared to the same month the previous year, as we did in September. We will definitely surpass 1,000 this year.”

The Mukilteo School District, which serves about 14,000 students, registered 203 students for McKinney-Vento services at the end of January, said Beth Vanderveen, the district’s student services director. That’s up from 165 at the same time last year.

Vanderveen identified two reasons for the increase – the New Year’s Eve apartment complex fire on West Casino Road over winter break that forced several families into homelessness, and the fact that the district is getting better at identifying homeless students.

Sarah Pederson, student support advocate at the district’s Mariner High School, said her school has about 30 homeless students.

The Edmonds School District, with more than 20,000 students, has 68 homeless students in middle school and 128 in high school as of Feb. 8, according to district spokeswoman Debbie Joyce Jakala.

But those numbers are deceptive. There are actually 469 “students in transition,” Jakala said.

Local school districts say that the McKinney-Vento Act does not provide enough financial support. “There is little to no funding for McKinney-Vento,” Vanderveen said.

Washington state receives about $950,000 in funding each year from the U.S. Department of Education to support the education of homeless students in school programs. That money is given to districts in the form of competitive grants, with money funneled to districts with the greatest need.

“The issue with funding is that we are required by federal law to provide transportation so that our homeless students can get to school, as well as support them in other ways so that they can participate in school,” Jones said.

“The federal government does not provide any additional funding for this purpose, and so we wind up using funds that could otherwise support more students.”

Dorn said that McKinney-Vento money can be used for a variety of activities for homeless students, including helping to defray the excess cost of transportation; tutoring, instruction and enriched educational services; supplies and materials; and early childhood education programs.

Districts that do not receive McKinney-Vento grant funding can use Title I or other state or federal funding sources to support the educational needs of homeless students, he added.

In addition, the state Legislature is considering several bills to reduce homelessness in Washington, including HB 1682, which passed Feb. 10 by a vote of 68-28.

“There are now over 35,000 students in Washington that do not have a secure place to sleep at night,” said Rep. Jake Fey (D-Tacoma), the bill’s sponsor.

“This bill provides additional resources and grants to districts so they can better identify and serve homeless students. Every child in Washington deserves a place to stay at night and an opportunity to succeed in school.”

No matter how much money is thrown at the homeless situation, the problem will no doubt remain. There are just so many reasons why teens are homeless, said Julio Cortes, spokesman for Cocoon House.

But it comes down to one thing – it all starts in the home.

“A lot of it is just family dynamics,” he said. “Issues in the home boil up to the level where parents kick out the youth, or the youth runs away.”

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