ARTICLE: Pierce County, Federal Way see 8% boost in student homelessness

By on February 3, 2011. Posted in .

Article from Tacoma News Tribune on increase in student homelessness being seen by regional school districts – a sad reality that has been a significant issue and will only be moreso as family homelessness increases in the US. Please note that school districts generally underreport the number of students that are homeless, due to the lack of disclosure by families, many times afraid that they will lose their children or that they will be stigmatized.

Pierce County, Federal Way see 8% boost in student homelessness


Published: 02/02/11

Numbers of homeless students in public schools are increasing statewide, according to state officials. And that growth shows up even in some suburban schools.

“Every community has children experiencing homelessness,” said Marilee Hill-Anderson, the liaison for homeless students in the Sumner School District. “There’s no community that has not been impacted.”

More than 21,000 Washington state students were classified as homeless by the federal government in the 2009-10 school year, according to the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction. That’s nearly 5 percent more than the previous year and 56 percent more than the 2005-06 school year.

Most Pierce County school districts – including Tacoma – reported slightly fewer numbers of homeless students in 2009-10 compared with 2008-09. But since 2006-07, the numbers in Pierce County and Federal Way are up by about 8 percent.

The 8,000-student Sumner District reported an increase of nearly 15 percent between 2008-09 and 2009-10.

“For families that were barely making it when the recession hit, the ground crumbled underneath them,” said Hill-Anderson.

Melinda Dyer, program supervisor at OSPI, said several factors could explain the statewide increases, including more awareness on the part of school districts, the economic downturn and natural disasters such as floods. But she cautions that the overall numbers are probably low. “Because of the stigma attached to homelessness, some families don’t tell others they are homeless.”

Federal rules count students as homeless even if they aren’t living on the streets, and the rules mandate certain services for those students.

The McKinney-Vento Act, the main federal law governing homeless students, covers students who live in motels and shelters along with those who go to sleep at night in abandoned buildings, cars and substandard housing. It also includes students whose families share housing with another family due to economic hardship or loss of housing.

Sumner, for example, reported in 2009-10 a total of 99 students living in shelters, 144 who were doubled-up with other families and 12 who lacked shelter altogether.

Washington receives approximately $850,000 in funding each year from the federal government to help homeless students. Competitive grants are awarded annually to school districts.

Sumner is one of two Pierce County districts that received grant money for the current school year. It is scheduled to receive just under $29,000 this year.

The other Pierce County district is Lakewood’s Clover Park, which will receive $30,000 this year. Its homeless numbers climbed 24 percent in the last school year.

Tacoma has applied for grant money but has not received it, said Tamie Williams, the homeless student liaison for Tacoma Public Schools.

The federal act provides homeless children free transportation to and from school so that they can attend their school of origin – the school they attended when they first became homeless – regardless of what district the family now lives in.

“A stable, consistent educational environment is better for all students,” said Keith Rittel, Clover Park deputy superintendent.

“We know kids lose ground academically when they bounce from school to school,” said Hill-Anderson.

That’s the logic behind keeping students in their school of origin, even if hardships force them to take up temporary residence elsewhere.

“Sometimes we can re-route a district bus,” says Hill-Anderson. “A few ride Pierce Transit.”

Often, she says, school districts collaborate to ensure homeless children get to school. For example, a Sumner bus may drop off a child at a bus stop in Puyallup, and a Puyallup bus will transport the child the rest of the way. In some cases, districts provide shuttle or taxi services to students, or reimburse parents for gas mileage.

Tacoma assists about 400 homeless students with transportation,

School officials also work with private funders and community nonprofits. They help with school supplies and food and clothing.

“Many families are working as hard as they can to get themselves out of this situation,” said Hill-Anderson.

Debbie Cafazzo: 253-597-8635 debbie.cafazzo@

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