If we want children who live in poverty to succeed, we need to assure that every child has a safe and secure place to go at night.
AS the school year began, 6-year-old Brandon was scared. His mom, Julie, was scared, too. The family became homeless after Brandon’s dad lost his job and the family couldn’t survive on his mom’s income as an in-home caregiver.
First, the family lived in a motel. Then they doubled-up with relatives in a small apartment. Wherever they spent the night, Julie was determined that Brandon get to school on time, every day before racing off to her job. She was stressed, and Brandon developed severe separation anxiety. He couldn’t bear to leave his mom’s side, let alone speak.
Brandon, not his real name, is just one of more than 7,200 students in King County and 35,500 in Washington state who experienced homelessness last year. A recent Seattle Times article [“The hidden homeless: families in the suburbs,” Page One, April 21] chronicled the effects of homelessness on these children and their academic performance.
Being homeless affects how kids develop. Kids who are sleeping on a different relative’s couch each week can’t do their homework. Kids who keep changing classrooms don’t keep up with their school work. Kids who must travel longer distances because they are living out of the district come to school tired and become hungry long before lunch time, making it hard for them to concentrate on their school work. Studies confirm that homelessness creates tremendous stress in children, hindering their ability to learn and develop social skills. School failure sets in, and the vicious cycle of poverty is perpetuated.
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Aware of the traumatic effects that homelessness can have on children — physically, emotionally and academically — the King County Housing Authority, Highline Public Schools (where 1,027 students were homeless at some point during the 2014-15 school year) and Neighborhood House have partnered on an innovative program to rapidly rehouse families with children identified as homeless by school staff.
While many families require ongoing rental support to remain stably housed in this increasingly expensive rental market, others just need temporary assistance to tide them over a rough patch and get them back on their feet. The Student and Family Stability Initiative (SFSI) offers these households short-term help with housing expenses, such as rent, security deposits and moving costs, combined with case management focused on eliminating barriers to housing stability and employment.
The program is showing promise. Since its inception in late 2013, a total of 115 homeless families, with 294 children, have been rehoused. Of these families:
• Eighty-two percent remain stable in their housing post assistance.
• Sixty-five percent of the assisted families show a monthly income gain, with median monthly incomes increasing from $1,234 at entry to $2,040 at exit.
• Eighty-nine percent of the students housed through the program remain at their original school.
Using its flexibility under the Moving to Work program, KCHA is investing $800,000 to rapidly rehouse another 100 families with an estimated 250 children in the Highline school district in 2016.
Support for the program is also being provided by the city of Burien, Building Changes and the Siemer Institute for Family Stability through the United Way of King County.
For an average one-time cost of about $10,200 per family, this approach can mitigate the devastating impacts of homelessness on children and the shattering cycle of problems it triggers.
This was certainly true for Brandon. Once his family entered the SFSI program, they were able to secure a suitable apartment close to Brandon’s school.
Now that his housing is stable, Brandon has opened up. He joined the first-grade book club at his school. His counselor notes that he smiles and waves and isn’t afraid to raise his hand and speak. “He’s doing amazing,” she said. “I definitely think stable housing was a piece of that.”
For homeless students like Brandon, stable housing is a critical prerequisite to achieving better academic outcomes and future success.
SFSI shows what can be done when housing, education, and employment systems work in partnership to end child homelessness. In acknowledgment of the promise of this approach, the state Legislature recently approved TSHB 1682, which provides grant funds for schools that partner with local organizations to serve homeless students and their families through programs like SFSI.
A stronger school system is not enough. If we truly want children who live in poverty to succeed and break the cycle of poverty in our communities, we need to ensure that every student has a safe and secure place to go at night.