Brandy Sincyr tried to pretend nothing was wrong.
She didn’t want anyone at school to know she was homeless. “I just faked it and acted like everything was OK,” she said. “There was a lot of downplaying and lying involved.”
It was humiliating, the 22-year-old Seattle Pacific University graduate said. With her mother and sister, she left home at 15 to get away from an abusive stepfather and has since become an advocate for homeless students.
More than 27,000 homeless students have been identified in Washington schools, according to the state Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, but Sincyr thinks there are many more. “There’s such a huge stigma, it’s hard to speak up,” she said.
She’s helped provide feedback to a team of students at the University of Washington’s School of Law who are drafting bills to provide support to and help schools better identify homeless students.
Chris Jordan is part of the group, called the UW Law Children and Youth Legislative Advocacy Clinic. “It’s a really personal issue that makes it tough to identify kids or for kids to identify themselves,” he said.
Columbia Legal Services, a firm partnering with the clinic, estimates an additional 10,000 homeless students in Washington schools haven’t been identified.
Senate Bill 6074, the so-called Homeless Children Education Act, could help. The bill, which passed out of the Senate Committee on Early Learning and K-12 Education on Monday, calls for research to identify the characteristics of youth homeless populations, provide information and offer voluntary training for teachers.
Sen. David Frockt, D-Seattle, is prime sponsor. He said the bill would detail the extent of the problem in Washington schools.
“When we get the data, we can get schools and districts to provide more attention and services,” he said.
Two companion measures — Senate Bill 6365 and House Bill 2736 — would create a two-year pilot program to provide housing for homeless students and families. Right now, the federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act requires districts to pay for taxis and other transportation services to take homeless students to and from school.
The bill would allocate $300,000 for districts to provide assistance with rent, utilities and other costs instead of paying for transportation.
It’s modeled after a housing project at Tacoma’s McCarver Elementary School.
More than two years ago, the school partnered with the Tacoma Housing Authority to provide rental assistance for 42 homeless families with children at the school. Families are enrolled for five years and the amount of assistance they receive decreases by 20 percent each year.
Michael Power of the Tacoma Housing Authority supervises the program.
The school is overwhelmingly low-income, he said. About 95 percent of students receive free and reduced lunch.
When the program first started, the school had a more than 170 percent turnover rate – meaning more than the total population of students were coming and going each year. Now, it’s down to 75 percent.
Student achievement has also increased in the classroom, Power said. They are reading better, and getting in trouble less, he said.
“These kids have very disruptive lives,” he said. “They are challenged in getting use to the culture of a school and that has changed dramatically in the first two years of the program.”
The Senate Committee on Financial Institutions and Housing and Insurance held a hearing for the bill on Tuesday. The House Appropriations Subcommittee on Education will hold a hearing on Thursday.
Sen. Bruce Dammeier, R-Puyallup, introduced Senate Bill 6338, requiring the Department of Commerce to give preference to projects between local school districts and housing authorities, such as the McCarver program.