Now that his family has found a place to live after spending about a year homeless, 11-year-old Brian Phillips can do his homework without fighting the distracting commotion of living in shelters.
“I can do my homework peacefully, study peacefully with no noise,” the fifth-grader said during a recent interview at First Place Scholars in Seattle, his tuition-free, private elementary school in the city’s Central District neighborhood. The school has a history of serving low-income students, many of them homeless or at risk of becoming homeless.
Brian is no longer homeless after moving in with his grandmother.
But estimates from the state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction show more students are having difficulty finding permanent housing. The number of homeless youth attending public schools in Washington is rising: There were about 35,500 in 2015, up from 32,500 the year before. The count has been rising since the initial tally of 20,780 in 2009. The office says some of the increase might be because of more accurate data as the counts went on.
Lawmakers in Olympia are pushing bills that seek to reduce the number of homeless youths and help those who need a permanent place to live, but the success of bills has been varied.
“Everyone sees the data and says it’s terrible that we just sit back and do nothing,” said Sen. David Frockt, a Democrat from Seattle who is sponsoring Senate Bill 6298. The proposal seeks money to create a grant program for aid for housing, transportation, emergency shelter and rent and for providing social workers dedicated to homeless students.
The grant program would award $2 million to school districts in both 2017 and 2018, paid from the state’s general fund because of lack of political will to raise money through means like taxes, Frockt said.
But after being approved by a committee, Frockt’s bill lost traction.
A similar bill reintroduced from 2015, House Bill 1682, passed the House on a 68-28 vote last week. Frockt, sponsor of its counterpart in his chamber, said he doesn’t expect the Senate to pay for the program.
Rep. Jake Fey, D-Tacoma and sponsor of the House version, has said it was inspired by a program at Tacoma’s McCarver Elementary School.
The program, a collaboration with the Tacoma Housing Authority that dates to 2011, offers housing vouchers to needy families that commit to keeping children enrolled at McCarver and supporting their education.
Some Senate Republicans who control the chamber say they have higher priorities to pay for, such as preventing wildfires and repairing damage from them. But this year, there isn’t extra money to spend, said Sen. Linda Evans Parlette, R-Wenatchee.
“There are so many issues we would like to fund in the supplemental budget,” she said.
First Place Scholars is an example of what it takes to properly aid homeless students, said Dawn Mason, president of the school’s board. The private school has a small student-to-staff ratio and offers a number of social services, including 16 units of subsidized, on-site housing, all provided mostly by private donations.
In public school districts, there are liaisons dedicated to working with homeless youth because of the federal McKinney-Vento Education of Homeless Children and Youth Assistance Act. The law provides about $950,000 a year for district programs that serve homeless students, according to the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction.
Districts are stretched thin, though, Frockt said.
Public schools in Kent get no money from McKinney-Vento because the available funds are distributed through a competitive grant process, said the district’s director of categorical programs, Rona Popp. The district spends “thousands and thousands” out of pocket to pay for staff and transportation required by the act. Just 24 of 295 school districts in Washington received McKinney-Vento money for a three-year period starting in 2013.
We need to provide them with the ability to go to someone to spend time looking for housing, connect with social services and other state agencies that can help them.
Rona Popp, Kent School District director of categorical programs
Kent relies on community organizations to help get after-school food, housing and clothing for homeless students because the district can’t do so itself. Popp said the district wants at least one social worker dedicated to helping homeless families, because academic counselors in schools are doing both jobs, and “there’s a lot of needs” in each school.
“We need to provide (homeless students) with the ability to go to someone to spend time looking for housing, connect with social services and other state agencies that can help them,” she said.
At First Place, Phillips talked about his experience on break from his martial arts class. He was wearing a white karate uniform, and his voice perked up when talking about his love for drawing and where he’s looking to attend middle school.
His daily routine is different now that he has permanent housing: “Less difficult, not moving from one place to another.”