On a recent weekend, Destiny, 17, spent an unusually sunny spring day canoeing near her temporary home in Western Washington.
Technically homeless, Destiny has been staying with her grandmother, unsure of where she would go next if she needed to move again, with so many shelters closed for the pandemic. She went to sleep that night on the living room couch with a slight ache in her throat.
She woke with a start the next morning, drenched in sweat and with a fever over 100, her throat nearly closed.
With no car to get to a nearby clinic, Destiny’s grandmother dialed 911. Paramedics quickly arrived, wearing face masks and shields and full-body hazmat suits.
“They came in, grabbed me and took me out to the fire truck,” Destiny said. “They kept telling me everything was OK, but I was in tears. I was so scared.”
Destiny’s fear is mirrored by that of Washington’s homeless advocates and educators as they watch the pandemic wreaking havoc on the lives of those who already have less.
The chance that Destiny had COVID-19 capped an already exhausting month, one in which she broke up with her boyfriend, moved out of his family’s home and lost the only constant in her life – school. Now, she had to somehow quarantine in a one-bedroom apartment with her brother and grandmother, who rarely missed a chance to ask where Destiny would live next.
“I’m on edge all day long,” said Destiny, whose last name is being withheld because she is a minor in a vulnerable position. “Everything was really good until recently. I’ll survive. It’s just actually really hard.”
The coronavirus pandemic has thrown the already rocky lives of homeless students like Destiny into chaos with the closure of schools, community centers, libraries and even shelters. In many cases, school work has dropped to the bottom of their list of priorities. And the advocates and teachers tasked with looking out for these kids fear the systems designed to help them, already worn thin, won’t be enough in the middle of a pandemic.
Federal law requires school districts to assign someone to keep track of youth experiencing homelessness and to make sure they have what they need to learn. That job, which often comes with a nonspecific title like “homeless education liaison,” just got harder.
The feds offer school districts some funding to help, but as of 2018 it amounted to just about $56 per homeless student, which educators say is not nearly enough. With scant resources from the government, homeless liaisons, school counselors and social workers are patching together hasty practical solutions for the state’s more than 40,000 homeless students.
Yet even as nonprofit groups and foundations rush to shore up emergency aid for the most vulnerable youth, many advocates worry about a looming surge in homelessness due to the economic fallout of the pandemic. And it remains unclear if federal lawmakers will provide funding to avert that future need.
“The next wave of homelessness is coming. It’s going to be bigger and, I think, a little more out of control,” said Kim Rinehardt, executive director of Mason County H.O.S.T., a program that, similar to foster care, places homeless youth with host families in rural Western Washington.
Since 2008, the number of homeless students in Washington nearly doubled, according to the state superintendent of public instruction’s office. About 3,000 of Washington’s homeless children have nowhere to sleep each night, and nearly 6,500 can’t rely on a parent or guardian for help. That increase is mirrored nationally; public schools have reported double-digit growth in students experiencing homelessness since 2010, federal education data show.
Here, a shortage of affordable housing, particularly in communities where working and low-income families have sought cheaper rents, has made things worse.
“Housing’s not easy to find, simple as that, and that’s when we’re not in the middle of a pandemic,” said Kim Welling, a homeless liaison for the Burlington-Edison School District, which identified 163 students, or about 4 percent, as unstably housed this academic year.
“We’ve got families that will live in [weekly] motels for years,” Welling said. “A lot of them are just scraping by.”
Community shuts down
For many homeless students, school closures have been especially devastating.
“School was my outlet,” Destiny said of Granite Falls High, nestled in the western foothills of the Cascade Mountains. “It’s just a really small, loving community. Everyone goes above and beyond to help.”
In a makeshift office-slash-storage closet on campus, Destiny could fill her backpack with food, toiletries and hygiene products – all free for the two dozen homeless students enrolled there. She also met regularly with a counselor who stretched her part-time schedule to help about 220 homeless students across the Granite Falls School District.
“I could tell her everything,” Destiny said. “It was so easy to talk to her. She’d share life experiences, techniques to cope.”
Like Destiny, three in four homeless students in Washington live temporarily with friends or relatives. It’s a precarious arrangement that depends on the generosity of their hosts; a helping hand that some have withdrawn as stay-at-home orders prevent guests from leaving
Rising tensions at her boyfriend’s house convinced Destiny it was time to go.
“All of us were around each other all the time,” Destiny said of her boyfriend and his siblings. “It was a lot of emotional tension.”
One day, Destiny left the home to visit with her brother – breaking the quarantine rules set at her boyfriend’s home. Her boyfriend’s mother, concerned, called Destiny and suspected she might have been drinking or taking drugs, an accusation that offended Destiny.
“I just don’t do that,” she said. “I don’t want anything to do with drugs.”
The sting of the accusation sent Destiny packing, and she moved into her grandmother’s cramped apartment, where her brother, also homeless, was staying. But she has not escaped tension there. Arguments with her grandmother often end with the suggestion that Destiny leave and return to her own mother, which Destiny described as a bad option.
Old problems, new reality
Regardless of their nightly residence, youth experiencing homelessness face hurdles that pre-date the novel coronavirus. The sudden reality of a pandemic that requires regular hygiene, strict social distancing and no school has made their lives harder.
In Burlington, about 30 miles north of where Destiny is staying, mother Heather Matyas has often resorted to walking her three daughters, ages 6, 7 and 13, from an abandoned auto shop, where they were staying in a dusty storage space on the second floor, to a nearby fast-food restaurant to submit homework online.
The family’s struggles started years before, in 2016, when the children’s father died. Matyas, who is on disability, has worked odd jobs since then to keep her kids stably housed, but in January, an electrical outlet started a fire in the towable camper that had been their home.
“It’s just been falling from one level of losing resources to another,” said Matyas. “If I get a stable job, where can I get child care? There’s no low-income housing available. I’ve been on (the waitlist) for years. What rays of hope do you have?”
Building Changes, a Seattle-based nonprofit that works to reduce youth and family homelessness in Washington, posed a question in early April to homeless liaisons working in schools throughout the state: What do your families need right now? The survey revealed five top needs: Food, internet access, mobile devices, basic hygiene supplies and rental assistance.
“No one had a chance to prepare,” said Mehret Tekle-Awarun, senior manager of education strategy for Building Changes. “Certain (homeless) liaisons, out of the goodness of their hearts, took it upon themselves.”
In rural counties, homeless liaisons have crowdsourced lists of families to coordinate food deliveries across district lines. The Granite Falls liaison, who oversees the district where Destiny is enrolled, created a schedule for students to shower at school and for families to wash their clothes at a laundromat. And in neighboring Skagit County, Welling partnered with a local homeless agency to start a drive-thru resource for families to pick up food, diapers, disinfecting wipes and more.
But advocates worry about these patchwork fixes.
“There’s no precedent,” said Barbara Duffield, executive director with the Washington, D.C.-based SchoolHouse Connection. “This is like a hurricane every day.”
The discussion among advocates often lands on frustration with their inability to spend federal dollars meant to help homeless students on housing or motel vouchers. Those restrictions, in part, persuaded Building Changes and the Seattle-based Raikes Foundation to launch a COVID-19 emergency fund for housing, food and basic needs.
As of May, Building Changes and Raikes have raised nearly $1.3 million, mostly from other philanthropic groups, and distributed just over $1 million to schools, religious groups and nonprofits. A little more than a third of the awards paid for housing assistance, with basic needs and technology making up another third.
Helping Black and Indigenous youth is a priority since 6 in 10 Washington homeless students identify as a student of color, said Raikes program officer Paula Carvalho, “and also our immigrant and refugee populations. They probably won’t see a dime of the federal relief money.”
“We’re not lazy”
With one more year before her planned graduation, Destiny began questioning her future.
She had planned to get a summer job, save for her first car and claim a first taste of independence. Then, she would join the National Guard and eventually use veterans benefits to attend Washington State University.
“I really wanted to be a teacher, a kindergarten teacher,” Destiny said. “I love kids so much, and any way that I can help them would be great. [But] it’s going to be hard if this virus sticks around for a while, so I don’t know.”
Less than a month into her school’s experiment with virtual classes, Destiny had all but given up. A flood of Zoom invites and emails about new assignments overwhelmed her, and no adult she’s been sheltering with has been able to help. Her counselor tried to intervene, asking teachers to lower Destiny’s workload. But it didn’t make enough of a difference.
“Honestly, I haven’t even bothered. It’s too much,” Destiny said.
Destiny hopes that a planned transfer to an alternative high school focused on serving kids like her will help her get back on track in the fall. And since her grandmother plans to move out soon, a friend of Destiny’s brother might take over the lease and offer Destiny and her brother a more permanent home.
“Things might get less stressful,” she said. She also has her brother. (“He’s like my favorite person ever.”) And her health: When Destiny finally got her test results, it turned out she’d had strep throat, not coronavirus.
She almost cried, thinking of how many students live without stable housing across Washington and the many more expected to be in her situation next year.
“A lot of people think that we’ve done something wrong to deserve this,” Destiny said. “And that’s not fair. That’s not right. We’re not all troubled or mean. We’re not lazy.”
But they are stuck, and with fewer resources than usual available to help.
This story about homeless youth was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.