Homeless student numbers increase in Mid-Columbia by 15%

Ty Beaver, Tri-City HeraldFebruary 27, 2014 

Mid-Columbia school districts reported more than 960 students as homeless during the 2012-13 school year, a 15 percent increase compared to the previous school year.

More than 30,000 students across the state are listed as not having a permanent and stable home, according to numbers released Thursday by the state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction. It's the sixth year in a row that the state's number of homeless students has increased.

While Mid-Columbia districts have recorded higher numbers of homeless students in the region in recent years, local and state education officials said it does follow a state trend of more children being in need of extra services from school districts.

The cause of the increase isn't fully known, officials said, as numerous factors play into why students are homeless. However, one Tri-City homeless youth advocate says it's awareness, not increasing population, that's contributing to the numbers.

"That's why the schools are so helpful to us," said Mark Lee, a board member at Safe Harbor Support Center, which runs a homeless teen shelter.

Federal law requires school districts identify and report their number of homeless students. Those students can be living in any number of circumstances, from children who've moved in with friends and extended family after losing a home, to teenagers fending for themselves, officials said.

The Pasco School District reported the most homeless students last year at 373 out of eight districts around the Tri-Cities. They were followed by Kennewick at 299 and Prosser at 161, though the Richland and Kiona-Benton City school districts also saw increases in their homeless student populations.

Districts ask about a student's living circumstances when they enroll and use that information to determine whether they qualify for services, said Marci Chavez, Kennewick's homeless student advocate. However, family circumstances can change, leading students to leave school. Some families are afraid to seek help and some homeless students aren't enrolled in schools at all, officials said.

"It's not even close to the number that's in the community," Chavez said of the district tallies.

Once notified of a students' homelessness, districts do everything from helping them find stable housing to providing clothing and school supplies. They also help sign them up for free or reduced price school meals and, if they're in high school and don't have a parent or guardian, help them seek financial aid for college after graduation.

"Students who are homeless are part of a vulnerable population and we feel strongly that we need to keep them safe and help them be successful in school," said Sarah Thornton, executive director of legal affairs and homeless student liaison for the Pasco School District.

Problems still persist and many students fall through the cracks, Lee said. Differing definitions of homelessness among government agencies can make it difficult to get help. Lee's experience working with students at the former Vista Youth Center in Kennewick showed that it's tough to convince some to seek help.

"It's easy to not be aware because they try to blend in and act like nothing's wrong," he said.

School districts have become better about identifying students in need and providing access to services, Lee said. But that still leaves others on their own.

"If they're not in school, they have nothing," he said.

-- Ty Beaver: 509-582-1402; tbeaver@tricityherald.com; Twitter: @_tybeaver; Google+: +TyBeaverTCHerald

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