At Hawthorne Elementary in southeast Seattle, about 1 in 10 children lack stable housing.
They either spend their nights in a shelter, at a hotel or motel, couch-surfing with friends and family or outdoors.
But since last fall, Acquinetta Williams, Hawthorne’s family support worker, has spent nearly $10,000 helping some of the youth and families at her school who finally found permanent housing this year.
What do previously homeless people need when they first move into a permanent home? Williams’ receipts tell the full story: beds, kitchen supplies, towels, a table (for eating and for homework), dressers, drawers, a microwave (for ease in preparing kid-friendly foods) and a sofa.
The money that paid for those items came from a $2 million donation that local tech giant Amazon provided to Seattle Public Schools last fall to help address the basic needs — food, housing supplies, clothes — that families don’t typically find at school. Over the past decade, the number of homeless students has more than doubled across Washington state, an increasing challenge that falls on schools already trying to help children overcome the obstacles of living in poverty.
“Because of their circumstances of living in shelters for many years, they have nothing but a bag of clothes to move into their new home,” Williams said of two families recently placed in permanent shelters.
The Alliance for Education, a local nonprofit tasked with managing the Amazon donation, did not have a specific number of children that received support through the Right Now Needs Fund. But, as of the end of the school year last week, the fund provided about 8,000 individual instances of student support.
Of the schools that received a portion of the $2 million donation, Hawthorne Elementary was the first to exhaust its fund. Bailey Gatzert Elementary in the Central District, a school where nearly a quarter of students are homeless, was the second.
Each school in Seattle received a base $1,000 from the fund, with an additional amount given to campuses with higher rates of students from low-income backgrounds. Fund director Petaki Cobell said that schools have spent 44% of their funds on needs related to housing, with the remainder split between food, clothing and medical needs.
Cobell, an Ingraham High graduate, said her experience growing up poor in Seattle taught her that families often have to navigate a patchwork of agencies and programs during a time of crisis.
“When you ask for help, you have to jump through a lot of hoops and you don’t always get exactly what you need,” she said.
“We’re not dictating to families specifically about how to use the funds,” Cobell added. “You don’t need to take a day off work to get this help.”
So far, the participating schools have spent about $386,000 of the funding. The remaining $1.6 million will roll over into the next school year, but Cobell said she hopes to help individual schools — especially those without a dedicated family support worker — spend their distribution more efficiently. And schools can tap the fund over the summer break to help families afford clothing and back-to-school supplies.
The Alliance also recently announced that Amazon extended its donation, by $250,000, to get more students into the city’s summer programs.
“The whole goal of the fund is not to hold onto it for the future. It’s to use to meet basic needs,” Cobell said.
At Hawthorne, Williams said that many of her families struggled to balance large electric bills after missing work to take care of their children during last winter’s snowstorms.
She used some of the money to support those households with rental assistance and utility bills. Other families got help to pay for move-in security deposits and first month’s rent for new housing.
Williams recalled one parent telling her, “I now have hope people do care.”