Two seemingly contradictory numbers reveal a key problem in efforts to help youth and families experiencing homelessness.

According to the state Department of Commerce, a total of 3,777 minors were homeless in Washington state as of 2018. But check with the state superintendent’s office, and they’ll tell you schools here enrolled nearly 41,000 students who lacked stable housing last year.

Why the discrepancy? It’s mostly a problem of definitions.

Schools can count as homeless anyone living doubled-up, or “couch surfing,” with friends or relatives because of economic hardship. (That’s important because state data shows that — whether they’re in a shelter, a hotel or a friend’s living room — students without stable housing have similarly poor outcomes in school. In other words, the specific type of nighttime residence matters less than housing instability itself.)

But federal Housing and Urban Development (HUD) rules don’t allow housing providers and counties to count “couch-surfing” students as homeless. That leaves schools with thousands of homeless youths whose families legally can’t count on agencies that use HUD grants to access emergency housing, rental assistance or any other service that might offer stability in their lives.

A nascent program in Washington, backed by $2 million a year in state grants, has tried to close the divide between school districts and housing providers — and it’s showing early results.

In 2016, state lawmakers created the Homeless Student Stability Program to link youth experiencing homelessness and their families with stable housing in their school districts. The grants can cover emergency shelter, rent, transportation, tutoring, training for school staff and more.

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“The best part of Washington [state]’s system is it doesn’t go through HUD. It’s a way of sidestepping and going around that broken system,” said Barbara Duffield, executive director of SchoolHouse Connection, a Washington, D.C.-based national nonprofit working to overcome homelessness through education.

The Seattle Times’ Education Lab briefly mentioned the program in a recent feature about why the federal government requires school districts to transport students to the last school they attended before losing their housing. After that story published, Duffield pointed out that the Evergreen State is the only one that funds formal partnerships between housing providers and school districts.

“Our hands are often tied due to the definition of homelessness,” said Laurel Turner, executive director of the Women’s Resource Center of North Central Washington.

Based in Wenatchee, her nonprofit organization works with landlords in Chelan and Douglas counties to connect clients to affordable permanent or transitional housing. But under the federal HUD rules, Turner couldn’t help families who lived doubled up in another family’s home.

“We have had to turn away households who have admitted to sleeping on a friend’s couch,” Turner said. “It feels awful to penalize a household for taking steps to protect themselves from the elements.”

Now, with $72,000 from the state grant program, her agency has been able to skirt the HUD rules and help host homes cover the added costs of sheltering another family, including higher utility bills or more groceries. The grant also has paid for sports equipment, musical instruments and other charges at school.

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The flexible fund, according to Turner, reached 153 individuals in 98 households last year.

“Keeping someone housed just a few months longer — sometimes that’s all it takes to get them to the end of the school year,” she said.

For the 2019-20 academic year, three dozen school districts applied for grants with the state superintendent’s office. Their requests totaled more than $2.2 million, but only a dozen districts were selected to split $830,000.

North Thurston and South Whidbey schools each received the maximum award amount of $75,000, down from $85,000 last year. Each has used the money to hire academic coaches to help homeless students stay on track to graduation and support them through the college application process.

“Our homeless students were not making gains academically,” said Gail LaVassar, director of community and school partnerships in South Whidbey. “So we needed more academic support that was flexible, that could be responsive to what individual students need.”

Since 2017, graduation rates for homeless students in South Whidbey schools have risen from 60% to 100% this year. That’s about double the statewide average graduation rate of just 55% for homeless students.

In North Thurston, the academic coaches also help youths apply for food stamps and Social Security benefits, schedule dentist and doctor visits, find jobs and more.

“That’s what they do: They navigate these students into the rest of their lives,” said Leslie Van Leishout, director of student support for North Thurston Public Schools.

She’s still waiting on final numbers, but she said the graduation rate for homeless seniors in North Thurston this year could top 80%, up from 65% in 2017.

In her annual grant reports submitted to the state, Van Leishout includes survey responses from students about the program. Many praised the coaches for taking a lot of stress off their minds, allowing them to focus on school or giving them hope for the future.

“There were times when I thought I hit rock bottom, and this program helped build a new foundation for me,” one student wrote.

“It helps you get back on your feet and get the ball to start moving again,” another wrote. “Only if you put in the effort though, on your end.”