A state emergency on homelessness shines a spotlight on homeless students. What comes next?
BAILEY Gatzert Elementary School principal Greg Imel told a sobering story Monday about a 7-year-old boy, a new student at the Central District school in Seattle.
The boy held two plastic bags and was looking for his father, who wasn’t at their car, parked just off campus. Imel quickly realized the car was also the boy’s home, and the bags held blankets, donated by a teacher, to keep the father and son warm.
Unfortunately, this story is not a surprise: About 70 of Imel’s 350 students are homeless. Districtwide, about 3,000 Seattle students are homeless — about one kid per classroom.
In declaring a civil state of emergency Monday for the homeless crisis, Seattle Mayor Ed Murray and King County Executive Dow Constantine shone a spotlight on student homelessness. Nearly one-third of the $5.3 million Murray pledged to support his emergency declaration will go into homelessness prevention, including “flexible” funds that can be used to divert families from shelters or to help Imel’s student.
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Both administrations have strengthened contract oversight of homeless funding, which was overdue. An infusion of new money must come with the same scrutiny.
Despite the heartbreaking stories and important spotlight, the dramatic emergency declarations have a back-of-the-napkin feel. Murray didn’t specify how he’d use emergency powers, which include authority to sidestep zoning for siting homeless tent camps. Nor could he say when the emergency would end, except that there should be a “significant reduction” in homelessness.
Those details should be filled in soon, or the moral power of an emergency declaration will feel like a publicity stunt, not a true mission.
One place to start is to work with local school districts to bolster federally funded “homeless liaison” jobs. A 2014 survey of four states, including Washington, found staffers assigned to be liaisons juggled other duties, leaving just two hours a week to that job. The huge Seattle school district has three full-time liaisons, but needs six to really do the job, said homeless liaison director Tyra Williams.
It is “embarrassing,” Imel said, that in a city of affluence, a 7-year-old was left to find blankets for his own bed, in a car.