Jonathan Houston has worked with more than 300 students in his first year as the homeless liaison for the Tukwila School District, where about one in 10 students is homeless. Houston knows what they’re going through. He and his family have been homeless, too.
As Tukwila’s coordinator for homeless students, Jonathan Houston has a database in which he enters the name of each student who doesn’t have a permanent place to sleep at night. With one of the largest homeless-student populations in the region, the list for the year totals more than 300.
He tries to know each name on the list of students who are or were homeless anytime this school year, but there’s a few he immediately recognizes. They’re the names of his own children.
Houston has worked with hundreds of students in his first year as the full-time homeless coordinator in the Tukwila School District, where about one in every 10 students is homeless. He knows what they’re going through. For most of the year, he and his family were homeless, too.
“I had to enter my own kids in the computer, and I thought ‘this isn’t supposed to happen to me,’ ” Houston said. “But then I realized, this could happen to anyone. Why couldn’t it happen to me?”
Inside and outside the school building, he’s learned much about homelessness this school year: how a past eviction can derail efforts to get permanent housing, how homelessness can range from sleeping at a hotel to sleeping on a bench, how he shouldn’t make assumptions about a student’s situation at home.
Before, he might have looked at a student living with his entire family in the garage of a relative’s house and assumed they were fine. Now he knows that although it’s a fixed residence, it’s not adequate for the student.
Houston’s role includes tracking homeless students and providing resources like food and transportation to or from school, while also working directly with social workers and counselors at each Tukwila school. He was previously a paraeducator at Thorndyke Elementary.
His official title is McKinney-Vento coordinator, named for the federal law that covers the rights of homeless students and provides some financial support for such costs as hiring liaisons.
Last year, 330 Tukwila students were labeled homeless, which the McKinney-Vento law defines as “individuals who lack a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence.”
About three-fourths of the students were “doubled up,” which means they were staying with friends or family. The rest stayed in shelters, hotels or motels, or were unsheltered, which means they may have lived in cars, abandoned buildings or on the street.
“It’s tough, especially with eviction and housing costs,” Houston said. “You can get evicted at any time. That was my barrier.”
His eviction came in 2012 after he got behind on payments for a trailer in North Seattle. It went on his record, though he was able to find an apartment. Three years later, with a new job and an expanding family, Houston wanted to find a larger space. He looked for another apartment, but no one would accept his application. By the end of the month, it was too late.
“I thought I would be able to find something,” he said. “Some people may say they have first, last month’s rent and deposit, but if they have an eviction on their record, the landlord has to weigh whether it’s worth it.”
He and his family moved multiple times. They stayed in a hotel off Pacific Highway South, where he saw kids playing in the parking lot. When they found a monthly sublet in Federal Way, they thought it would be better than a hotel.
“It gave us peace of mind, but the travel was quite tough,” he said. “I saw how that could affect a student, that long travel time.”
They went to another hotel off Interurban Avenue in Tukwila and put most of their belongings in a storage unit. Their expenses piled up, showing Houston that it can cost more to be homeless than not. They stayed with family friends in Kent, but felt burdensome.
He hid his homelessness from most students and colleagues, but would disclose what was happening to students who were experiencing the same thing. He told them, “I’m in the same boat. I live in a hotel.”
“He did mention something about staying in a hotel, which made me raise my eyebrows, but I didn’t feel it was my place to delve into it,” said Bruce Perham, a social worker at Tukwila Elementary School. “But I felt great compassion for him. It must be horrible.”
Perham is one of the social workers that work with Houston, making sure students have clothing, mattresses to sleep on, and shelter.
He says the persistence of the students he works with “knocks me over every day.” And though there’s already a high homeless population, he and Houston suspect there are even more students they don’t know about. All the students hide it well, they said.
‘They come to school having slept in cars, having been through things that might make you and I cringe, and they come with a positive attitude and go to class and learn,” Perham said.
“This community and this school has been able to help me a lot by being there to listen,” said Tavaesina Maiava, 18, a Foster High School senior whose family was homeless when she entered her freshman year. “My counselor was able to put herself in my shoes and understand what homelessness is like.”
Houston and his family finally found a short-term apartment where the manager had known him as a good tenant previously. And then he found a permanent one that accepted his application despite the eviction.
“It’s been a difficult situation to navigate, but at the end of the day, the students are who I am there for,” he said. “I support these students the way I would support my own. When I see my students, I see my own kids.”