My column in today’s Seattle Times follows up with Solomon Muche, a young immigrant who overcame homelessness in high school and now studies at the University of Washington. He recently spoke to other kids staying at Mary’s Place about the importance of asking for help and finding opportunities to better their circumstances. Right now, thousands of children without permanent housing are struggling to get through the public education system.
Muche’s success is a testament to that age-old idea that everyone has potential, but they need someone to help them reach their goals. That “someone” for many students in Washington is the homeless student liaison, a position the state Legislature supports on paper and is required to provide under federal law, but has not been able to fund or expand to every district in the state.
Meanwhile, the Washington Legislature was informed on Monday of some bad numbers. The state’s homeless-student population has jumped from 30,609 kids in the 2012-2013 school year to 32,494 the following academic year. As Seattle Times reporter Joseph O’Sullivan points out in this news story, some of that increase could be attributed to better data gathering. Whatever the reason, the problem is getting worse. Black and Native American kids in the K-12 system are three times more likely to be homeless compared to white students.
What to do about this? First, local and state officials must continue to require school districts to track the numbers. On Friday, volunteers will sweep the streets of Seattle and King County for the annual One Night Count, an effort to estimate how many people are living without shelter. (Mayor Ed Murray says he “fully expect[s]” the number to be higher this year.) Once policymakers grasp the extent of the problem, policies are easier to form and implement.
Readers should also keep an eye on Olympia, where legislators in the Senate Early Learning & K-12 Education Committee heard public testimony Tuesday on SB 5065. The Homeless Student Stability Act would require the state to fund dedicated staff liaisons in school districts that have 50 or more homeless students. Part-time and full-time liaisons from around the state testified before the committee about the importance of ensuring homeless kids have a person at their school dedicated to connecting them to housing, clothing and wraparound services that might improve their chances of staying on the path to graduation. Watch what proponents of the bill told lawmakers in the video below (at about the 10-minute mark), courtesy of TVW:
There’s a hefty price tag to hire those homeless liaisons, but bill sponsor state Sen. David Frockt, D-Seattle, makes a compelling case for funding it by tying this issue to the state’s efforts to close a widening opportunity gap among students.
“It’s not just throwing money at the problem,” he said. “It’ll add to more stability and more supports so we can keep [homeless students] in school and give them a better chance in life as they hopefully move toward graduation.”
Also, advocates pointed out the state spent close to $18 million on transportation for homeless students last year. They argue significant savings could be achieved if students were able to find housing closer to their home district rather than taking taxis to get from a shelter in downtown Seattle to their school outside the city. Lawmakers should continue to dig into this claim and make changes if necessary to spend taxpayer dollars more effectively.
As if the state Supreme Court’s McCleary ruling and Initiative 1351 are not already dominating the education funding conversation, legislators will have to find the political will to protect programs that are focused on homeless students. In the long run, the cost of letting these kids fall through the cracks is too high.