In communities across Washington state, including Seattle, Tacoma and Vancouver, early experiments on how to keep homeless students in stable housing and schools may expand nationally under a renewed legislative pitch in the “other Washington.”
Traditionally, housing authorities charged with connecting families to safe and affordable housing and the school districts that teach those families’ children don’t often coordinate their work. But pilot projects between housing authorities and school districts in the evergreen state have shown promising signs that those partnerships can make a difference for youth experiencing homelessness — improving both their classroom performance and their living situations.
That’s why U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., introduced legislation last week that would incentivize similar partnerships across the country.
If passed and funded, her Affordable Housing for Educational Achievement Demonstration — or AHEAD — Act would provide $150 million for the U.S. Department of Education to provide two-year planning grants for local housing authorities and school districts to work together or five-year implementation grants to get those projects started.
“We all know this is an issue. We see it every day wherever we drive in Washington state,” Murray said in a phone interview Thursday.
“The hidden factor is there’s a number of children whose lives are being impacted,” she added. “Everybody’s got to pitch in from every level, and certainly the federal government has to do its part.”
Murray first introduced the AHEAD Act in 2017. The bill would allow housing authorities and partnering school districts to spend the money on new ways to prevent children and their families from becoming homeless and provide stability at home and at school for students already faced with housing insecurity.
The original legislation never made it past the committee level. But Murray said she’s optimistic the new bill could make better progress this time — even as the Senate prepares for a pending impeachment trial of President Donald Trump during an important election year.
“One of the things I’m hearing from people across the spectrum — rural, urban, Republican, Democrat — it doesn’t matter where you come from, housing is a critical issue in their community,” Murray said.
In Washington state, the number of homeless students has nearly doubled in the past decade — from just under 21,000 in 2008 to more than 40,000 last year.
Lawmakers responded to that increase with the creation in 2016 of a state grant program that makes it easier for school districts and housing providers to work together and pay for emergency shelter, rent, transportation, tutoring and other services for youth experiencing homelessness and their families. In North Thurston and South Whidbey schools, district officials credit the grants for helping boost graduation rates for homeless students.
But even without that money, similar partnerships have sprouted elsewhere in the state.
In Tacoma, the housing authority started providing rental assistance specifically to homeless families with children enrolled in McCarver Elementary School. Parents then committed to working more actively in their children’s education — including reading together at home and meeting with teachers — while working on their own education and employment goals.
The Tacoma school district, meanwhile, invested in a costly International Baccalaureate program at McCarver and made space there for caseworkers from the housing authority.
Michael Mirra, executive director of the Tacoma Housing Authority, said the agency spends about $500,000 each year on the McCarver program.
“Our main job is to house people with a focus on the neediest,” he said. “The other part of our job is to do that in a way that helps them succeed not just as tenants but as parents, students (and) wage earners.”
“We do not wish them (the students) to have to need our housing when they grow up,” Mirra added.
Among the families that received assistance and support from the housing authority, school enrollment stabilized, according to a 2017 evaluation paid for by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. (The foundation also provides financial support for Education Lab.) The evaluation also found students’ reading levels outpaced their peers at McCarver, and their families’ incomes doubled on average.
Starting next year, Mirra said, the authority will start expanding the program to every school in the district.
Sunia Zaterman, executive director of the Council of Large Public Housing Authorities, highlighted Tacoma and similar efforts in Seattle and Vancouver as examples of what Murray’s bill might expand in other U.S. communities.
“This will be a huge leap forward, both in having an actual law that incentivizes and funds this and validates the approach,” Zaterman said of the AHEAD Act.
“The most complicated part is getting partnerships off the ground,” she said.
As for the bill’s chances of moving forward, Zaterman noted Murray’s both the top Democrat on the Senate’s education committee and a senior member of its powerful appropriations committee.
“I would not discount at all her ability to move this bill forward,” Zaterman said.