The number is mind boggling. There were 1,158 homeless students enrolled in Thurston County schools last year. That's enough homeless kids to fill nearly 50 elementary school classrooms. It's the equivalent of the entire population at Lacey's River Ridge High School.
Think about that statistic for a moment: 50 classrooms filled with homeless students – right here in Thurston County. Then put yourself in their place.
How do you do your homework in the back seat of an unheated van?
How prepared are you for a day of academics when you spent the previous night in a shelter and you don’t know whether there will be room for you and your family at the shelter tonight?
As a teenager, what are your chances of getting that much-needed high school diploma when you spend your nights “couch surfing” – moving from one friend’s house to another trying not to be too big a burden or overstay your welcome?
And for most of these kids, the fact that they don’t have a roof over their heads is not their fault. They haven’t done anything wrong other than to be born to parents who are struggling financially.
School officials – those who must deal with these homeless children every day and try their darnedest to get them a quality education despite their life circumstances – are quick to debunk the stereotypes associated with homelessness.
Many people assume that homeless people are in that situation because of drug or alcohol addiction, mental illness or bad choices. But those stereotypes usually don’t reflect the reasons families end up homeless, according to Sarah Greenwell, homeless liaison in the Olympia School District. Olympia had 457 homeless students in the 2009-10 school year – the highest of any school district in the county.
Greenwell said what she sees are families who have lost their homes because of the economy.
How many people do we know who are living paycheck to paycheck. All it takes is one missed paycheck, a job loss, an unexpected medical bill or other unanticipated event to tip the entire family out of their home and onto the streets of Thurston County.
Some of the children in those 50 classrooms of homeless students are from families fleeing domestic violence, sexual or physical abuse. And many are children of single moms, who simply can’t make ends meet.
Homelessness can take a horrible toll on children. Experts say they’re more likely to get sick, go hungry and fall behind in school. That’s no surprise, considering they are living in campgrounds, minivans, motel rooms, shelters and doubling up with friends and relatives.
The 1,158 homeless children in Thurston County are simply the youngest victims of the Great Recession.
What can we do to help them?
First and foremost we can support those programs in the community that serve as a safety net – as tattered as it might be.
The Thurston County Food Bank, for example, saw a 23 percent increase in the number of people served last year. The average client is not some drug-addicted sexual predator. No, the average Food Bank client is a child – generally a child of a parent or parents who would be classified as “working poor.” The parents are working one or more jobs, using their cash to fill the gas tank at $4 a gallon so they can get to work. They turn to the Food Bank to stretch the family’s food budget.
The Food Bank has the ForKids program specially designed for homeless youngsters. Each Friday a sack of easy-to-prepare food is secretly stashed into each homeless child’s backpack, so they will have food to get them through the weekend when they cannot take advantage of free or reduced price breakfast and lunch at school.
Community Youth Services has a series of programs aimed at helping homeless teenagers.
The Family Support Center provides referrals for emergency shelter, case management, housing assistance, counseling, parenting classes, employment assistance and other help.
Entertainment Explosion stages a highly successful variety show each February, with all the proceeds going to school districts specifically designated to buy school and personal supplies for homeless students.
But it’s not always about money. Retirees, for example, can offer to tutor struggling homeless students with reading or math.
With budget cuts looming at the state and federal levels, things are likely to get worse for struggling families. It’s up to each of us to advocate on their behalf and help where we can.