Legislation to better count the number of homeless children not yet in school or homeless kids who can’t go to school has stalled in Olympia.

Share story

Washington state saw the number of homeless students increase from 18,670 to more than 35,500 in eight years, according to state studies.

Still, officials worry that the number of homeless children is undercounted.

The count by the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) provides perhaps the most reliable data on homeless children, but it’s limited. It doesn’t include children not yet in school or homeless children who can’t go to school.

House Bill 1928 sought to fill in the gaps but, for the second time, it stalled and died in the House Appropriations Committee. The bill called for having four people from the Washington State Institute for Public Policy gather information on homeless youth from birth to age 10. It would have cost $136,953.

A near identical bill from 2014 came to a dead stop before reaching the Senate floor.

Rep. Ruth Kagi, D-Seattle, a bill sponsor, said more data is needed to either reassure or alert the Legislature about homeless programs.

For Democratic Rep. Jake Fey, the bill’s primary sponsor, the struggles of homeless youth speak to him. His son attended Tacoma’s McCarver Elementary School, in a district with the state’s second-highest number of known homeless students.

Fey tutored children with reading disabilities there for four years before becoming a legislator.

He’s also sponsoring another piece of legislation, making a grant for schools to gather homeless data, and another grant to give housing to homeless students and their families, like McCarver does.

“Down here, you do a lot of legislation but some if it gets to your heart,” he said. “These are real kids, and there’s not enough resources.”

For Kagi and Fey, it is critical to gather more information on homeless children under 5 years old.

“You want to help those kids as soon as you can because every period of time that goes by for them, they’re more disadvantaged at getting that education,” Fey said.

“They’re socially and emotionally impaired for life.”

Research from Harvard University shows adversity in a child’s life can have harsh, long-term effects on brain development, and mental and physical health. Research also shows differences in money and education affect a child’s vocabulary size as early as 24 months old.

Last month, a federal program under the Department of Health & Human Services released a report putting Washington’s number of homeless children under age six at 31,220 children — in 2013.

Only a handful accessed services, leaving 92 percent without help. The services in this breakdown were only federal ones, however: the McKinny-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, Head Start and Early Head Start.

Under HB 1928, federal and state data would have been examined, in part, to learn what bars people from accessing assistance programs, whether services meet the homeless population’s needs, and if some services should be created. Best practices elsewhere also would have been researched.

“It’s a question of taking data from many systems and trying to figure out how to get the most valid count of young children who are homeless with their families,” Kagi said.

Information in this article, originally published Feb. 15, 2016 was corrected Feb. 16, 2016. Due to an editing error, a previous version of this story incorrectly stated that House Bill 1928 would have examined federal and state data to determine, among other things, whether some homeless services should be discontinued. In fact it would have determined whether services should be created.