Zach Weber, a single father, and his four kids are part of a growing problem. More than 35,000 students in Washington were homeless at some point last year, and many were in suburban districts such as Edmonds and Mukilteo.

Share story

Zach Weber is a single dad with four kids who are part of a growing phenomenon in Washington.

Weber, 29, and his children live in what’s called service-supported homeless housing. Weber’s daughters, enrolled at Odyssey Elementary in the Mukilteo School District, are among the students in Washington public schools counted as homeless. Last year they totaled 35,511.

Youngsters like Weber’s 5-year-old son, eager to show off his wiggly loose tooth, and 11-year-old daughter, glad to share pictures of her pet cat, are in many ways the hidden homeless. Wary of stigma, they or their parents may conceal their situations. For that and other reasons, they’re challenging to count. Some neighbors never notice them. And they’re often far from big-city media.

Their numbers are surprisingly high in districts that might be thought of as suburban and affluent. The Lake Washington School District, serving Kirkland, Redmond and a good chunk of Sammamish, reported 296 homeless students last year. Mukilteo, on the shore of Puget Sound, with a median household income of $91,095, had 227. Edmonds tallied 600.

“We’ve literally got buses dropping kids at tents and cars,” said Debbie Joyce Jakala, spokeswoman for the Edmonds School District.

Some in the community didn’t have a clue — and still may not.

Kim Gorney, of Edmonds, recalled when she saw local moms on Facebook collecting food for kids. “We had no idea,” Gorney said about Edmonds’ homeless students.

Gorney founded a nonprofit group, Washington Kids in Transition. It provided last year 15,000 small bags of food, 15 weeks of motel stays for families and “emergency closets” for 16 schools stocked with hygiene kits, socks and snacks.

“We’re not solving the problem,” Gorney said. “Our goal is to make the kids fit in. We don’t want them to feel they stand out.”

School officials are quick to note that the Mukilteo and Edmonds districts are not as affluent as their namesake cities.

The Mukilteo district reaches into Everett, where Weber lives. “We serve everything around Paine Field and South Everett,” said district spokesman Andy Muntz. “We’re drawing more generally from a lot of apartment complexes and lower- income areas.”

The Edmonds district sprawls to Brier, Lynnwood, Mountlake Terrace and parts of unincorporated Snohomish County.

Nonetheless, the districts’ number of homeless students has nearly doubled since 2007-2008. Statewide, the trend has climbed a similar path. A little over 3 percent of all students were homeless at some point last year. Most were minorities.

Some believe we’re undercounting.

A quiet struggle

Anita Harris has been a school nurse for 25 years in the Mukilteo district. She tends to know which kids are homeless before almost anyone else.

The students try to hide it. You may recall how cruel kids can be about fashion and hygiene.

It’s not unusual, though, for a teacher to notice something, maybe a hint dropped into a writing assignment. Then the teacher will contact Harris.

“In every school, there are families in transition that try to keep it confidential and only tell a select few,” said Harris, based at Kamiak High School.

This reticence is one reason some officials think the count of homeless students is low.

The reasons for the homelessness she encounters are many, Harris said. Some parents have mental-health or substance-abuse issues. Some move away looking for work and their kids remain behind to finish school, staying with friends, family or at a shelter. Some kids don’t feel safe at home.

But mostly, she sees economic misfortune. Someone loses a job, or has a sick kid, and gets evicted. When you’re making minimum wage, first-month’s rent and a security deposit become real obstacles.

“I knew one family, two adults, nine kids in a Suburban and they’d park at Wal-Mart overnight and did that for a couple weeks before we were able to get them in a house with one bedroom,” she said.

Imagine what it’s like for the kids.

“The lack of stability makes it so hard. It affects everything you do,” said Sarah Pedersen, a school support advocate at Mariner High School in Everett. “If you’re staying in a one-bedroom motel with family you have no privacy or space of your own.”

These kids, Pedersen said, “are not talking about their everyday life like all the other kids, they’re not talking about friends they had over and what they did in the house last night — it’s pretty limited.”

Recovery, support

Weber grew up in Snohomish and Sultan, worked at Boeing and warehouses. He developed an addiction to methamphetamine.

In late 2012 he hit a low point. Everyday use became such a priority — and a costly one. He lost his rental home. His marriage dissolved.

He slept in his car a couple nights. He stayed in a friend’s motor home for eight months. In 2013 he moved into emergency shelter at Housing Hope in Everett, founded by the North Snohomish County Council of Churches.

He sought treatment for his addiction. “I knew it was necessary. The kids needed me,” he said.

He gained custody last August of all four of his children. The kids are thriving at school, he said. He gets help from family, and Operation School Bell in Everett has given the kids an allowance to pick out new clothes.

Housing Hope has connected Weber with a case manager, as well as legal services and services for the blind, according to an agency spokeswoman. The group has also worked with Weber on updating his résumé, college readiness and career opportunities.

His plan is to apply this summer for a federal housing voucher so he can move his family into more permanent housing. Because he’s disabled by low vision, similar to blindness, Weber receives state assistance including food stamps. He last worked in 2013.

“I’m intending to be fully self-sufficient,” he said. The state Department of Services for the Blind will pay for college studies, he said. He wants to get an online degree in computer science, starting as early as this fall.

Behind the numbers

How accurate is the count of homeless students?

It’s important to distinguish the school figures from the better-known statewide Point in Time count, and King County’s contribution to it, called the One Night Count.

Those tallies involve an annual one-day survey of shelters, and volunteers scouting out alleyways, underpasses, food banks and events hosted for the homeless.

Last year’s count put Washington’s homeless population at 19,418. King County accounted for 52?percent of the total.

Schools, by contrast, count students as homeless if they were at any point in an academic year.

Another difference: The Point in Time count relies on the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) definition of homelessness. That excludes young people who are couch-surfing or doubled up — which means sharing the housing of others.

The U.S. Department of Education’s broader definition includes doubling-up and couch surfing. That’s used by the state Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI), keepers of the homeless-student data.

The doubling-up category dominates the state numbers, accounting for 73 percent of last year’s homeless students. The remaining students were unsheltered, or staying in shelters or motels.

Nate Olson, spokesman for OSPI, has theories as to why there’s so much doubling-up.

Shelters can split families and place boys as young as 12 in adult male shelters, he said. Families may opt instead to rely on friends and families for a cot, couch or bed.

And, the number of shelter beds may have not kept pace with the need, he said. That could explain why the number of unsheltered students and those staying in motels has increased at much greater rates — 56 percent and 73 percent, respectively, since 2007-2008 — than the 9?percent increase in students sleeping in shelters.

Even with the doubled-up youth, an accurate count can still be difficult. If kids aren’t enrolled in schools they won’t be counted by OSPI.

All of this leads some who focus on youth homelessness to conclude, as the Raikes Foundation did in a recent report, that “all data are an undercount.”

Community ready to help

People in the Mukilteo district tend to be generous, said Harris, the school nurse.

Agencies like Clothes for Kids in Lynnwood and the Assistance League of Everett, which provides clothes through Operation School Bell, have been very helpful, said Pedersen, the school-support advocate.

If citizens want to contribute, Harris said, they can donate new or gently used clothes to the two groups or donate household supplies to the Assistance League, which can sell them in its thrift store and use the proceeds to buy new clothes.

In Edmonds, a group of preteen girls put on a fashion show last month, raising $6,000 for Washington Kids in Transition. When Gorney founded the group, she noted, she was following up on the charity of local school-bus drivers spending their own money to buy food for students.

“We have a very giving population if they know the need,” said Harris. “But I think kids are homeless and we don’t even know about it.”