Homelessness down in Tri-City schools

By Ty Beaver, Tri-City HeraldFebruary 5, 2013 

The number of homeless students in the Tri-Cities dropped last school year by 133 children, bucking the upward state trend, according to Washington education officials.

Statewide, the number of homeless students topped more than 27,000 during the 2011-12 school year. That's a 5 percent increase from the prior school year, according to the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction.

A few Mid-Columbia districts, including Kennewick and Finley, reported more homeless students but others saw fewer. Pasco reported the biggest decline with 141 fewer homeless students.

In all, 966 students were identified as homeless in the 2010-11 school year compared with 833 last year.

School officials said it's hard to say what led to the drop or even if it's accurate since students living in a variety of conditions can be described as homeless and the way they are counted can fluctuate widely. However, they are focused on getting services and help to those students and their families.

"Five or six years ago, we wouldn't have people coming off the street asking, 'How can you help us?' Now they are," said Lorraine Cooper, spokeswoman for the Kennewick School District.

Homeless students face greater risks, including health problems, than students who have a stable home. They're more likely to miss school and less likely to graduate from high school.

School districts are required by federal law to track the homeless youth they serve. Students are described as being homeless if they lack a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime home.

That means they could be living in a shelter, motel or at a campground, in a small home with one or more families or they may live in a car or on the streets.

In Pasco alone, 49 students were listed as living in motels last school year.

And 30 Tri-City students were described last school year as "unsheltered" -- meaning they have no known home.

In other parts of the state, district officials said the increased number of homeless students is likely tied to economic factors such as a family's home being foreclosed on or a parent losing a job. Housing costs in general are up, which puts a strain on families, as do cuts to support services.

"All the shelters are constantly at full capacity with people being turned away on a daily basis due to space issues," Sarah Greenwell, homeless liaison for the Olympia School District, said in a press release.

There's a better understanding of how students can be homeless. Youth may not be living under a bridge but they may be "couch surfing" -- sleeping in a different friend's home every night or every couple nights.

"Even though it's not living under a bridge, it's pretty bad," Cooper said.

Most of the students described as homeless in the Tri-Cities have some place to live, but it means cramming into some other family's home where they may not have their own bed.

In Kennewick last year, 273 students were listed as living with other families. And 130 students were "doubled up" in Pasco.

Leslee Caul, spokeswoman for the Pasco School District, said tracking homeless students can be problematic. Fewer students are described as homeless in the fall and winter but then there's a spike in the spring usually and it's not entirely clear why.

Defining what students and their families are homeless also can be a challenge.

"We have multiple families living in one small space, so which ones are homeless?" she asked.

Part of the increase could be awareness of services. Caul and Cooper said their districts work with students and their families and there's a greater awareness of services that are available to homeless youth.

But efforts to get help to youths are never-ending. Cindy Blackmore, lead counselor at My Friends Place youth shelter in Kennewick, said she wasn't aware of the current trend in the homeless student population.

She said the shelter, operated by Safe Harbor Crisis Nursery, has been open for about a year and had 44 youths stay overnight while another 50 dropped in either to get something to eat or do laundry.

"There are a lot of kids who don't know we're here," she said.

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