Once a child is identified as homeless, he or she qualifies for extra help through public schools.
The federal government awards grants to districts with a significant population of homeless students through the federal McKinney-Vento Act. In South Sound, the Olympia and Tumwater school districts have received competitive grants to operate homeless support programs.
Some districts provide gasoline money or bus service so that children can continue attending the school they were enrolled in when the family lost its home.
“We’ve bused from Mason County, Tumwater, Yelm, Tacoma,” said Debby Gaffney, administrator of Student Support Services in the North Thurston Public Schools. “We’ll work with other districts to coordinate that.”
Older teens are usually given bus passes for public transportation so they can get to school on their own.
Once identified as homeless, a child immediately qualifies for free breakfast and lunch at school, Gaffney said. There’s also a South Sound program that gives kids backpacks filled with food on weekends.
The Tumwater School District operates two clothing banks for families. In addition to new and gently used clothes, kids can pick up new shoes; personal hygiene supplies; and hats, gloves, scarves and quilts that are made by local women’s groups.
“It’s really neat to watch how excited the kids get, when they get to pick whatever they want and it’s brand new and it’s stylish,” said Tami Collins, administrative assistant and homeless liaison for the Tumwater School District.
The goal of the McKinney-Vento Act is to support education for homeless children by ensuring some stability in their lives and helping them not to stick out from other kids, school officials say.
In addition to federal grants, districts often partner with churches, businesses and nonprofits to help homeless families with such things as school supplies and field trip fees, head lice medicine and battery-powered lights so kids who live in tents can do homework at night.
“We help with yearbooks, caps and gowns, whatever we can so they don’t have to feel like they’ll miss out on an experience,” Collins said.