LACEY - Last fall, Desiree Lee of Lacey held a huge yard sale, packed family photos and other keepsakes into a storage unit and checked into an emergency shelter with her husband, David, and four children, ages 11, 8, 5 and 1.
The couple couldn’t find work, and her parents had been helping them with bills.
But then her mother died last summer, and Lee’s dad could no longer afford to help pay their rent. They walked away from a home that they had lived in for four years.
For six weeks, the family lived in limbo – sleeping quarters were first-come, first-served; weekly showers were a luxury; and the laundromat wasn’t just a place to wash clothes, it was a warm, dry, safe place to hang out until the shelter opened.
Lee, 28, said she slipped into survival mode. Things that would normally be important no longer showed up on her radar.
For example, she missed an appointment with school officials about an education plan for one of her children who has a learning disability.
“I couldn’t help them with their homework – I didn’t have time,” Lee said. “I was more concerned about getting to the shelter in time and getting dinner.”
HOMELESS IN SCHOOL
The number of children identified as homeless in Thurston County’s eight school districts grew 56 percent from the 2006-07 school year through 2009-10, school figures show.
And increasingly, families are turning to their schools for help when they lose their homes.
School officials say one of the fastest-growing categories of homeless students is families who were enjoying a typical middle-class suburban life until the recession hit. Then they lost their jobs, medical coverage and homes.
For some, it’s the first time they’ve experienced poverty, and they ask school officials to help them figure out how to apply for food stamps and other aid.
“I’m seeing families that are coming to me who are in total shock that they’re in this situation,” said Tami Collins, an administrative assistant and homeless liaison in the Tumwater School District. “They never would have guessed this would happen to them.”
Homelessness can be extremely stressful for children. Experts say they’re more likely to get sick, go hungry and fall behind in school.
“When students are moving from school to school, they lose so much academically,” said Sarah Greenwell, homeless liaison in the Olympia School District. “The studies show every time you move, you lose six months.”
One in 50 children experiences homelessness each year, according to the National Center on Family Homelessness. That’s more than 1.5 million children nationally who are living in campgrounds, minivans, motel rooms and shelters and “doubled up” with friends and relatives. They are among the youngest victims of the Great Recession.
In Thurston County’s eight public school systems, 1,158 students – about the same number as the student population at River Ridge High School in Lacey – were identified as homeless during the 2009-10 school year, the most recent for which statistics are available.
Some people assume that homeless people are in that situation because of addiction, mental illness or bad choices – but those stereotypes usually don’t reflect the reasons families end up homeless, according to Greenwell, with the Olympia School District.
Some have lost their homes because of the economy. Others are fleeing domestic violence. And many are single moms who can’t make ends meet.
Connie Alegria, 34, of Lacey works as a caregiver for Catholic Community Services, and her income is erratic.
She and her three boys have been homeless twice during the past three years, largely because of domestic violence, financial problems and credit issues.
“The weekends were the hardest because the kids weren’t in school, and we didn’t have anywhere to go,” Alegria recalled.
She met Desiree Lee at the Family Support Center’s emergency shelter in Olympia. The women formed a strong friendship and learned to rely on each other.
The two families ended up in transitional housing in the same neighborhood.
“Our kids now go to the same school, and that’s a big deal,” Lee said. “They’re getting to do things together.”
In Washington, more than 21,000 students were reported homeless during the 2009-10 school year, up 5 percent from the previous year and up 56.5 percent from 2005-06.
The five-year jump is huge, but several factors play into the gain.
“The biggest is probably more awareness,” said Melinda Dyer, program supervisor for the education of homeless children and youths in the state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction. “Five years ago, many districts didn’t know that this was a requirement. We’re seeing better reporting than we did then.”
Districts are required to try to identify and report the number of homeless students in their schools under the federal McKinney-Vento Act, which was passed to ensure that homeless kids have access to “the same free, appropriate education, including public preschool education, as provided to other children.”
The federal definition of homeless covers families staying at friends’ homes, camping in recreational vehicles, staying at a shelter, and living in a hotel or motel room.
One of the biggest challenges for homeless families is staying together. The Salvation Army’s shelter is for singles; Bread & Roses is for single women. And children are not allowed at Camp Quixote, South Sound’s traveling tent city for the homeless.
“I’m seeing more families that are choosing not to wait on waiting lists to get in shelters and will choose to stay in their car, or choose to stay outside in tenting situations,” Greenwell said.
Another trend that local schools are seeing is an increase in “unaccompanied youths” – usually 18-year-old high school students whose families can no longer support them, school officials said.
“They’re either on the street, staying with friends or couch-surfing,” Greenwell said. “I’m seeing a lot more of that.”
In the Rochester School District, 14 students were reported homeless five years ago. Last school year, the number was 186, up from 127 the previous year. The majority of students live with other families.
Not only are staff members learning how to better identify homeless students, but more families are stepping forward and asking schools for help, said Bambi Sotak, executive assistant and homeless liaison in the Rochester School District.
“A lot of it was the economy, especially out here,” she said. “We started having people lose their jobs left and right.”
During the 2009-10 school year, 11 children were unsheltered – usually sleeping in cars or at camp sites – and a handful of families stayed in motels, which can be an economic trap, Sotak said.
“They make enough to pay for a motel room, but not enough to get out,” she said.
Alegria’s family spent a lot of time in its minivan, so money that could have gone toward a rent deposit ended up in the gasoline tank or in car repairs so the family could stay warm, she said.
“It was like they were never going home, so they were always tired,” Alegria said. “I was so worried for them. But, I also know they were worried about me.”
Lee said her 11-year-old daughter was embarrassed about being homeless and was teased by some of her schoolmates. The girl coped by telling other kids that the family was “in transition.”
“I think the kids handled it better than I did,” Lee said. “I was a wreck.”
SOME HAPPY ENDINGS
Once they moved into their houses, both women say, they saw a remarkable difference in their children’s behavior and a renewed interest in school.
“It was like a fairy-tale ending when we moved in,” Alegria said. “It was amazing.”
The families usually get together at least once a week to have dinner and let the kids play together.
Alegria and Lee said they came out of homelessness stronger, and they’re taking steps to make sure their kids will never have to go through it again.
Both say they’re grateful for schools and a community that helped them survive.
“I just really learned to expect the unexpected,” Lee said.
Lisa Pemberton: 360-754-5433