You could see them every day and never know it. They might be sitting next to your son in math class, or singing alongside your daughter in the holiday pageant.
An estimated 30,600 kids in Washington’s public schools — or about one child per classroom — do not have a stable place to sleep when they leave each day, according to data released last week by Columbia Legal Services. And because of the stigma involved, many more homeless youth might not let anyone know.
“I never talked to an adult when I was homeless,” said Trai Williams, who spent 10 years on the streets, starting at age 13, and now does outreach through the Mockingbird Society Youth Network.
Williams reflects one of the more troubling aspects of this research: the majority of homeless students are under 14, and overall their numbers are growing. Between 2006-07 and 2012-13, the total population of homeless kids nearly doubled in Washington. Part of the increase was due to the recession, researchers suggest, the rest to more accurate counting.
But David Coven, a 20-year-old engineering student at the University of Washington, is certain that many homeless students remain unseen. During the years covered in the Columbia Legal report, he was one of them. He was also a student at Cleveland High School in Seattle.
Adults wondered at his increasingly disheveled appearance, his slumping grades and his attendance — which was spotty at best. But social studies teacher Adam Burden took the essential next step.
“For whatever it’s worth, I have a room in my house if you ever need it,” he told the youth.
Coven, however, was unwilling to reveal his secret. So he continued to sleep at friends’ homes, pin-balling from one to the next. None of them knew the truth either. “You never know how people are going to react,” he said. “It’s a very vulnerable situation. Being 16, I thought the less they knew, the more I could control my situation.”
When school let out for the summer, Coven found refuge in books, spending hours at the Douglass-Truth Library in Seattle’s Central District. It was there that he finally called his social studies teacher, the week before junior year, to ask for help.
“David is brilliant — just a phenomenal brain,” said Burden, noting that Coven was a 4.0 student and student-body president by the time he graduated Cleveland. “While he lived at my house, he had no job except taking out the garbage, emptying the dishwasher and being a student. The level of success that he’s capable of when people remove barriers, it’s profound.”
Burden received approval for the unorthodox arrangement from Coven’s mother and Cleveland’s principal. But few other students are as lucky. While federal law requires that schools designate a liaison to identify and aid homeless youths, the U.S. Government Accountability Office finds that, on average, most tack that work onto other administrative duties, spending about two hours per week on homeless youth.