Number of state's homeless kids rises

The number of homeless students across the state is on the rise -- including the Tri-Cities.

The state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction released numbers Thursday showing for the 2009-10 school year, the number of homeless students in Washington grew to 21,826.

That's up from 20,780 the year before.

And the number has been steadily growing since 2005-06, when there were 13,942 homeless students identified in the state.

"There are a lot of factors that could explain the increase," said Melinda Dyer, OSPI's program supervisor for the education of homeless children and youth. "The biggest is probably more awareness. Five years ago, many districts didn't know that this was a requirement. We're seeing better reporting now than we did then."

She said the economy also might be driving the increase, but that homelessness overall likely is underreported.

"We still have some reporting issues," she said. "Plus because of the stigma attached to homelessness, some families don't tell others they are homeless."

Locally, Kennewick saw an increase from last year of 48 homeless students, from 183 to 231, or a 26 percent increase.

Pasco saw a 33 percent increase, from 245 homeless students in 2008-09 to 326 the following year.

Richland identified 83 homeless students in the 2009-10 school year, up from 77 for the prior year, or a 7 percent increase.

Homeless students are identified as those living in emergency or transitional shelters; motels, hotels, campgrounds or trailer parks; sharing housing with other families because of economic hardship or loss of housing; cars, parks, public spaces or abandoned buildings; places not typically used as sleeping accommodations for human beings; or in hospitals awaiting foster care placement.

Runaways who have homes but choose not to live there are not counted as homeless under federal guidelines.

Lana Siemon, who oversees programs for homeless students in the Pasco School District, said the growing number in Pasco likely is from a combination of the economy and families losing homes through foreclosure, and school district staff becoming better aware how to identify homeless students.

"Basically, lack of income is placing them at risk of losing housing," Siemon said of families in the district.

Jack Anderson, federal projects director for the Kennewick School District, said it can be difficult to identify students who are homeless because they sometimes simply disappear from school.

"The problem is how do you find those kids," he said. "Those are kids who kind of slip out of the system because we don't know where they are to even offer them services. Even then, services are limited."

School districts can't, for example, give a student or a family help with housing.

But once a student is identified as homeless, school districts have federal money available to help students with things like fees and materials for extracurricular activities, or college application fees -- the kind of thing that keeps the student connected to school and reduces some of the stigma of homelessness.

"The goal is to provide them with consistency in their life so they end up being able to continue to reach out to their goals instead of having this particular problem shape their future," Siemon said. "When you actually see them stay connected and they're happy and they see the differences we're making in their lives ... I think to myself, 'They had so many obstacles.' Seeing them go on (and graduate) is the whole reason we're doing this."

Michelle Dupler: 582-1543; mdupler@tricityherald.com