During the hour-long discussion, panelists highlighted ways that Washington leads the country on combating youth homelessness, which state law defines as students who lack a consistent nighttime residence.

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Experts at a Seattle Times Livewire event Wednesday night on youth homelessness said there are many reasons to be optimistic, despite some pretty depressing numbers.

“We have complex challenges” here in Seattle and the Puget Sound, said Katy Miller, West Coast coordinator for the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness. But “we also have an incredible body of social services.”

Katy Miller, who works with the National Initiatives Team at the US Interagency Council on Homelessness, describes how Washington State and King County are leading the way in policy efforts to offer assistance to students experiencing homelessness.

Nearly 40,000 students were identified in Washington state last school year as homeless, a number that has doubled since the 2008-09 school year and amounts to about 3.7 percent of the total student population.

Along with Miller, the panel held at Seattle Public Library included Katara Jordan, an attorney and advocate with the Seattle-based nonprofit Building Changes, and Jonathan Houston, who has coordinated homeless student services as a liaison for Tukwila Public Schools. The panel was moderated by Jonathan Martin, the editor of Project Homeless — the Times’ new yearlong newsroom initiative focused on explaining and exploring solutions to the regional homeless crisis.

Katara Jordan, Senior Manager at Building Changes, explains some of the disadvantages students have when they experience homelessness during a LiveWire event at Seattle Central Library.

During the hour-long discussion, panelists highlighted ways that Washington leads the U.S. in combating youth homelessness, which state law defines as students who lack a consistent nighttime residence.

For example, Washington is one of the only states to provide supplemental funding for schools to support homeless students, according to Jordan. And innovative solutions here — such as partnerships between local housing authorities and school districts — are inspiring federal legislation. The trick is getting partnerships between social services and schools to happen on a wider, faster scale, and for everyone to be on the lookout for ways to connect families with resources.

That can be difficult, even for those most in need of help. Houston said he came across parents who hesitated to reach out for help, fearing their children may get taken away. And then sometimes families don’t realize they are homeless.

Houston and his family experienced homelessness firsthand a few years ago, and he said the realization for him came as a shock — “If I’m staying with my sister, I’m not homeless, right?”

Drawing from his personal experiences, Jonathan Houston, the Partnership Director at Equal Opportunity Schools, describes some of what it feels like for students and their families to experience homelessness.

To keep students from falling through the cracks, Houston said, everyone from bus drivers to teachers has to be on the lookout for signs that a student might have an unstable housing situation.

“If a school sees it only as the liaison’s issue, and not everybody’s issue, then it doesn’t work. If it’s just one person doing the work, it’s not going to be very efficient,” he said.

A 30-year-old federal law, the McKinney-Vento Act, provides money for schools to identify homeless students and to transport them to their home schools. It also requires that school districts have liaisons like Houston around to help connect students to resources.

Jordan says if you want to help with homelessness in your district, that liaison is the first call you should make. Here is a list of those liaisons, along with their contact information, for each school district.