North Thurston Public Schools, the largest school district in Thurston County with more than 14,000 students, also has a real-world problem faced by communities and school districts throughout the country: homelessness.
The district was home to nearly 900 homeless students during the 2017-18 school year.
Among them was a young man who went to North Thurston High School during the day, worked at an area fast-food restaurant after school, but who spent his nights behind a dumpster, said Leslie Van Leishout, director of student support for the district.
“He felt safest where no one could see him,” she said, adding that he left his home because of family dysfunction. With the help of the district, that young man graduated and now has a full-time job, she said.
But if the Family and Youth Resource Center had been in place then — and the district wants to open it this year — the district “would have known about him sooner,” Van Leishout said.
The plan is to open the resource center in fall 2019 in a building familiar to many: the former Bally’s fitness center, which is near Martin Way at Sleater-Kinney Road Northeast.
The center is envisioned as a one-stop destination for school supplies, food and clothing, but also as a place to do laundry, take a shower and to potentially meet with other social service providers. It will share space with the South Sound Reading Foundation.
Karen Remy-Anderson, executive director of student support and special education for the district, compared the resource center to Lacey’s Veterans Services Hub, a one-stop destination for veterans.
The Providence Community Care Center in downtown Olympia is another similar arrangement, although the resource center would strictly be open to district homeless students and their families, district spokeswoman Courtney Schrieve said.
Homelessness in the district
There were 886 homeless students in the district last year. The majority of them were considered to be “doubled-up” with friends or family members, but others also were in shelters, or not sheltered (living in a car or tent), or living out of hotels and motels, district data show.
Over the past decade, the number of homeless students has increased from around 300 to close to 900. Some of that increase can be attributed to the district being more diligent about identifying homeless students, but other factors include the lingering effects of the Great Recession, followed by the affordable housing crisis.
Home prices have risen sharply in recent years, including in Thurston County. The median price of a single-family residence typically is more than $300,000, and when potential buyers get priced out of the market, they become renters. And increased demand for rentals results in higher rents.
There’s also the added wrinkle of federal housing requirements. If a family has three children, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, requires a bedroom for each child, Van Leishout said. That type of rental could be $2,000 per month.
“Both parents might be working but they can’t afford to get into housing,” she said.
The average rent for an apartment in Thurston County was $1,187 in 2018, up 15 percent from 2017, according to Thurston Regional Planning Council data.
For the 2018-19 school year, the district already has about 700 homeless students, but Van Leishout expects that number to grow over the coming year. Even a snowstorm can exacerbate a living situation. For example, if a small business owner had to close shop during the recent storm here and didn’t make money and now can’t pay rent, they might be facing homelessness, she said.
Working with homeless students in a centralized area is nothing new for the district.
Since 2014, the district has had the Family Partnership Center, which is located between the former Bally’s and North Thurston High School. It will move into the resource center and build on its services.
The Family Partnership Center is in a tiny space. McKinney-Vento liaison Brenda McAferty said once they move they will have the space to stretch out and serve more families.
McKinney-Vento is a federal law that makes sure that those experiencing homelessness can still get an education.
The district will begin by moving desks, partitions and phones to create work spaces for the center, assistant superintendent Monty Sabin said, but serious investments in the space are still to be determined.
A 2020 bond issue is under consideration by the district to raise money for a number of facility projects, including a possible remodel of the resource center. Meanwhile, Lacey is ready to spend $250,000, city manager Scott Spence said.
“The City Council has a great partnership with the district and is very empathetic to the student homeless population,” he said. “We want to make a meaningful impact in that arena.”
North Thurston High School graduate Conner Crowder, who once lived out of his car for six months, welcomes the idea of a resource center with a range of services.
“All of those thing are incredibly important,” he said. “Access to a shower, especially. I was lucky to have a local gym that allowed me to take a shower.”
Family dysfunction led Crowder, now 21, to leave his meth-addicted mother (an abusive father was in prison for strangling her) and live out of his car when he was a senior at North Kitsap High School. But his grades suffered as a result and he eventually moved in with his sister in Lacey, found work and went back to school at North Thurston High School.
As a McKinney-Vento homeless student, he later took advantage of the district’s assistance with scholarship applications. He eventually won $20,000 in scholarships and is now enrolled at Tacoma Community College, studying to get into the school’s ultrasound program. He also has a one-bedroom apartment and a part-time job.
Crowder remembers the heavy stigma associated with homelessness and how that prevents some from asking for help. Now, he would encourage those in a similar situation to speak up.
“What is worse?” he said. “Asking for help or being homeless? Being homeless is always the answer.”