Though homelessness is a visible symptom, many Seattle students need greater interventions.
In April, the Washington Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction released an alarming report. The data, which looked specifically at the number of students experiencing homelessness currently enrolled in Washington public schools, found that in our district, one in 13 students experienced homelessness of some variety during the 2016-2017 school year. That means they may temporarily be couch surfing or doubling-up with friends or family.
Meanwhile, of those 4,280 Seattle Public Schools students experiencing homelessness, 125 students were found to be completely unsheltered — what the Department of Housing and Urban Development defines as “literally homeless.”
The plight of these students and their families has become impossible to overlook — and immoral to ignore.
Our region has become less affordable. There are not enough low- to moderate-income family housing units. There has been a vast reduction in federal and state resources addressing the student homelessness crisis. And, despite efforts to close the racial equity gap, Seattle remains segregated, financially and physically.
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The direct result: More students without stable housing.
In 2001, the U.S. Department of Education adopted the McKinney-Vento Homelessness Assistance Act, which declared that students experiencing homelessness have the right to enroll in school without delay and have access to comparable educational services as housed students. Seattle Public Schools helps these students through a program of the same name, ensuring students have access to education and can fully participate in school. The program works to provide support services based on individual needs, like transportation to ensure students can still attend their school of origin, even if their nighttime residence is in a neighboring district.
The program is a resource that has assisted many students in achieving academic success — and, as a result, has improved their trajectory in society.
Still, we must fight the temptation to decide that we’ve done all we can. We have not. The program dollars are not granted to Seattle Public Schools based on the overwhelming need. Additional support, resources and innovative revenue streams are needed from the city, county, state and federal government.
These students and their families are struggling with housing, yes, but within their struggle are layers of trauma. The trauma of extreme poverty, of life-threatening health disparities, of homophobia and systemic racism. These are families who have felt the full impact of this city’s explosive growth, yet have little to show for it. They are literally without a house — but in Seattle, they are also without a home.
It would be willfully negligent to ignore the racial component; just like homelessness among adults disproportionately impacts people of color, so, too, does homelessness among Seattle Public Schools students. In 2016, McKinney-Vento liaison Tyra Williams told the South Seattle Emerald that 87 percent of homeless students are students of color.
In addition to myriad challenges these most vulnerable students face, students of color — specifically black students — also are more likely to be targeted for discipline and suspension, further keeping them out of the classroom. Once they’re out, it can be difficult to bring them back in, even with stable housing.
Many of the students living in unstable environments are also new to our country; reports from 2017 found that 14 percent of homeless students had limited English proficiency. Programs like Seattle World School, a culturally and linguistically diverse school for newcomer secondary students, can be a valuable lifeline — but rarely do we examine the overlap between their needs as immigrants and their needs as unsheltered students.
At Seattle Public Schools, we create spaces where students feel safe in their identities. And yet, instead of talking about the intersections of marginalization — addressing immigration’s role in homelessness, or racism’s role in absenteeism — we seem inclined to treat students experiencing homelessness as a monolithic class.
We can help students get to school. We can ensure they’re fed. Yet, we must address the intersections of homelessness — by doing universal screening, by co-locating family homelessness prevention services in schools, by providing more classroom assistance and by ensuring all of our curricula are culturally competent. We must expand partnerships with housing authorities, explore new ways to help students for whom getting into class is just not possible — and identity the challenges of each homeless student. To do any less is to miss the mark in upholding our goals and values as a city.