Lawmakers in Olympia are pushing bills that seek to help homeless youth and their families find permanent housing, but the success of those proposals has been varied.
Now that the family of 11-year-old Brian Phillips has found a place to live after spending about a year homeless, doing homework comes without fighting the distracting commotion of living in shelters.
“I can do my homework peacefully, study peacefully with no noise,” the fifth-grader said during a recent interview at First Place Scholars, his tuition-free, private elementary school in Seattle’s Central District. The school has a history of serving low-income students, many who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless.
Phillips is no longer homeless after moving in with his grandmother.
But estimates from the state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction show more students are having difficulty finding permanent housing.
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The number of homeless youth attending public schools in Washington is rising: There were about 35,500 in 2015, up from 32,500 the year before. The count has been rising since a tally of 20,780 in 2009. The office says some of the increase might be because of more accurate data.
Lawmakers in Olympia are pushing bills that seek to reduce the number of homeless youth and help those who need a permanent place to live, but the success of bills has been varied.
“Everyone sees the data and says it’s terrible that we just sit back and do nothing,” said Sen. David Frockt, a Seattle Democrat who is sponsoring Senate Bill 6298.
The proposal seeks money to create a grant program aimed at providing money for housing assistance, transportation, emergency shelter, rent and providing social workers dedicated to homeless students.
The grant program would award $2 million to school districts in both 2017 and 2018, paid from the state’s general fund, Frockt said.
But after being approved by a committee, Frockt’s bill has lost traction.
A similar bill reintroduced from 2015, House Bill 1682, establishing the Homeless Student Stability And Opportunity Gap Act, recently passed the House on a 68-28 vote.
That bill would create competitive grants to pay for housing and other costs for homeless families with a child in school and help schools gather data on homeless students. The grants are intended to provide an incentive for schools to pay more attention to and assist homeless students whose school performance can often be at risk, according to Rep. Jake Fey, D-Tacoma, the bill’s sponsor.
Fey said he modeled the House bill after a program at Tacoma’s McCarver Elementary School, which partnered with Tacoma’s Housing Authority in 2011 to provide housing and support for homeless students and their families.
Frockt said he doesn’t expect the Senate to find funding.
Some Senate Republicans, who control the chamber, say they have other funding priorities, such as paying to prevent wildfires and repairing damage from them.
This year, there isn’t extra money to spend, said Sen. Linda Evans Parlette, R-Wenatchee.
“There are so many issues we would like to fund in the supplemental budget,” she said.
Sen. Mark Miloscia, R-Federal Way, said he supports the House bill’s concept, but not the approach of running such a program through the schools.
Districts stretched thin
First Place stands out in providing services for homeless students, according to Dawn Mason, president of the school’s board. The private school has a small student-to-staff ratio, social services and 16 units of subsidized, on-site housing, provided mostly by private donations.
In public-school districts, there are liaisons dedicated to working with homeless youth because of the federal McKinney-Vento Education of Homeless Children and Youth Assistance Act. The law provides about $950,000 a year for district programs that serve homeless students, according to the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction.
The districts are stretched thin, though, Frockt said.
Public schools in Kent get no money from McKinney-Vento because the available funds are distributed through a competitive grant process, according to the district’s director of categorical programs, Rona Popp. That means the district spends “thousands and thousands” out of pocket for staff and transportation required by the act.
Just 24 of 295 school districts in Washington received McKinney-Vento money for a three-year period starting in 2013.
Kent relies on community organizations to help get after-school food, housing and clothes for homeless students. Popp said the district wants at least one social worker dedicated to helping homeless families, because academic counselors in schools are doing both jobs, and “there’s a lot of needs” in each school.
“We need to provide them with the ability to go to someone to spend time looking for housing, connect with social services and other state agencies that can help them,” she said.
At First Place, Phillips talked about his experience on break from his martial-arts class. In his white karate uniform, and his voice perked up when talking about his love for drawing and where he’s looking to attend middle school.
His daily routine is different now that he has permanent housing:
“Less difficult, not moving from one place to another.”