As schools in Washington count a growing number of homeless students, three local experts discuss how Seattle-area schools can combat the problem. They spoke at an event co-sponsored by the UW and Education Lab.

Share story

While praising some local efforts to combat the growing number of homeless youth, a panel of experts on Monday highlighted ideas that are showing success in communities across the nation and globe.

The panelists, speaking at Foster High School in Tukwila after a screening of a documentary about homeless students in Chicago, suggested Seattle-area schools could serve three meals a day for students who face food insecurity. That idea has gained popularity in cities such as St. Paul, Minn., and Springfield, Mo., but largely targets children who live in low-income households, according to local media reports.

The event was co-hosted by The Seattle Times’ Education Lab and the Master’s in Education Policy program at the University of Washington’s College of Education. The film, called “The Homestretch,” follows three homeless teenagers as they struggle to finish school and find a stable living situation.

When asked what she’d like to see here to help homeless students, panelist Josephine Ensign, a family nurse practitioner who teaches at the University of Washington, promoted community cafes that she has visited in New Zealand and has proposed re-creating in Seattle’s University District.

The cafes, some of which are former soup kitchens, welcome everyone, with communal tables to encourage familiarity between people who are homeless and those who aren’t. The cafes also offer support services to help visitors get out of homelessness, including obtaining identification and finding housing.

“It’s an amazing thing,” Ensign, author of “Catching Homelessness,” said of the cafe concept. “We don’t have anything like it in the United States.”

Homelessness among Washington youth has boomed in recent years.

According to the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction, schools counted 35,511 students who were homeless at some point in the 2014-15 academic year. That’s nearly double the total in 2007-08. Federal education law defines homelessness broadly and includes unsheltered students and those who “couch surf,” meaning they live with friends or relatives due to a loss in housing or economic hardship.

Homelessness “can happen to anyone. It’s a situation, not an identity,” said panelist Jonathan Houston, who oversees homeless services for Tukwila Public Schools.

The district last year reported 330 homeless students, or about 11 percent of its total enrollment in 2014-15.

At three elementary schools in Tukwila, staff send children home with “weekend backpacks” filled with food, said longtime Tukwila School Board member Mary Fertakis.

“It’s one less thing that families in chaos need to worry about,” Fertakis said.

“This isn’t solving the problem but meets an immediate need,” she added.

The panelists, including Ruth Blaw of the Seattle Conservation Corps, noted communities that truly want to address homelessness must consider systemic problems such as lack of affordable housing, limited access to quality health care and widening disparities between the rich and poor.

On a smaller scale, Houston told the audience they could inform neighbors of homeless liaisons that state law requires in each district. Blaw also stressed shelters and subsidized housing programs offer less of a stable home than a neighbor, teacher or other adult can provide to students they know are struggling.

“There’s something to be said for a community helping their own,” said Blaw.