Plight of homeless students: challenges make it difficult for many to focus on school and graduate

  • Fri Apr 7th, 2017 12:34pm
  • News

High school years: for students it’s a time to prepare for college, a transition period to becoming an adult.

However, for some students in Washington state it’s a time fraught with rapid change when they must grow and learn to survive on their own during those high school years.

Often these students are hungry. It’s uncertain where they will sleep each night.

These students are classified as unaccompanied youth. Essentially, they’re homeless.

Unaccompanied youth are those ages 12 to 24 – defined by law and social services – who live on their own in unstable situations without a legal guardian.

One recent South Whidbey High School graduate has lived on her own for most of her life. She left her home to escape a toxic environment. Due to the sensitive nature of her story, she asked not to be identified.

Her father was physically abusive, and her mother was mentally abusive and suffered addiction problems.

When she was 12 she began occasionally living at other people’s houses. At 16, she lived away from her parents for a majority of the time.

Her unstable living situation took a toll on her schoolwork and she averaged Cs and Ds in high school.

“I was a never a good student just because in addition to not having a [stable] place to live, I had a hard time keeping up with the school work,” she said. “Better attendance would have helped, but it’s hard when you don’t have transportation and you don’t have a reliable way to get up in the morning. Some days it’s just easier to find a place to stay at night rather than go to school.”

Homeless youth across the state

Other students share these challenges across the state. According to a 2016 report by the Washington State Department of Commerce, there were nearly 13,000 homeless unaccompanied youth in Washington.

Data collected by the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) revealed that 3,412 K-12 students were unaccompanied during the 2015-2016 school year.

Homeless students are defined by the federal McKinney-Vento Act as those who lack a stable nighttime residence.

Under this law, students are guaranteed the right to remain in a school district, even if they move outside of the district boundary. Districts must provide transportation for homeless students and enroll students in school even if they don’t have the necessary paperwork or a regular address to call home.

According to Gail LaVassar, executive director of the Readiness to Learn Foundation at South Whidbey High School, students experiencing homelessness face challenges that make it difficult to focus on school and to graduate. She works with 101 students recognized as homeless in her school district, among whom are 26 unaccompanied students, those with no parent or guardian present in their living situation. The district has 1,321 total students enrolled.

“There’s just not the stability of knowing that where you came home to today is where you’ll come home to tomorrow, and that stress and that worry is profound,” said LaVassar.

“When you’re struggling to meet each day’s needs, it’s harder to think long-term or big-picture,” said Mary Michell, South Whidbey School District’s homeless liaison. As the liaison, she identifies which students fall under the McKinney-Vento definition of homelessness and then connects the students experiencing homelessness with resources.

Transportation can be a large issue for students who live on their own, especially in a rural area like Whidbey Island.

The bus system on Whidbey Island, Island Transit, is free, but only travels to certain areas during the weekdays. LaVassar says it’s difficult for students to hold a job without a reliable way to get to work. Community resources that provide food cannot be reached without transportation, leaving many students hungry.

The challenges of consenting as a minor

Being a minor – under 18 – without a parent or guardian can be limiting to a youth.

Currently a person must be 18 or older to consent to releasing personal information to the Homeless Management Information System (HMIS), which tracks information about people experiencing homelessness.

Legislation proposed this 2017 session by Rep. Vandana Slatter, D-Bellevue – HB 1630 – would give unaccompanied minors the ability to consent to have their personal information collected for the HMIS.

An amendment passed by the Senate committee on Mental Health & Housing requires youth to provide personally identifying information to service providers who receive public funding before receiving services.

Kim Justice, the executive director of the Washington State Department of Commerce Office of Homeless Youth, says that all counts of people experiencing homelessness are undercounts. The Washington State Department of Commerce oversees the state’s HMIS database. According to Justice, this measure would capture a more accurate number of unaccompanied youths and inform which services and resources are needed.

“They (unaccompanied youth) often feel invisible as they are not being reflected in the data,” she said. “Data drives policy making.”

Slatter was inspired to sponsor HB 1630 because of the number of homeless students in her community. During her term as a Bellevue City Council member in 2016, she learned there were approximately 252 homeless students enrolled in Bellevue School District. She explained that the measure would help the unaccompanied youth be visible. Understanding the number of homeless students living on their own is the first step in addressing the issue.

HB 1630 passed the House Mar. 3, with 96 representatives in support, one opposed, and one excused. The Senate Committee on Human Services, Mental Health & Housing passed HB 1630 on Mar. 28. The bill was referred to the Senate Rules Committee for a second reading and to await full Senate consideration.

Accessing health care can also be a problem for unaccompanied youth.

Voted into law last year, the state’s Homeless Student Stability Act (HSSA) added a section to an existing law regarding minors and medical services. This permits homeless liaisons, school counselors, and school nurses to authorize health care services when a legal guardian is unavailable. Prior to the HSSA, youth under 18 couldn’t receive medical treatment without the consent of a legal guardian.

With HSSA, school districts with more than 10 unaccompanied youth must provide building liaisons in middle schools, junior schools, and high schools to identify unaccompanied youths and refer them to the homeless liaison.

The HSSA also provides two grants. Housing grant money was administered by the Washington State Department of Commerce, and the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) supplied another grant to districts to identify and provide services to students experiencing homelessness.

South Whidbey School District received $15,000 in OSPI grant money this year, which was used to hire a Youth Support Specialist to work directly with unaccompanied youth in the district.

In general, youth under 18 cannot sign themselves into a homeless shelter or sign a rental agreement, which leaves them with few housing options.

Lori Cavender, founder of Ryan’s House for Youth, says she’s heard about homeless unaccompanied youth on Whidbey Island sleeping in portable bathrooms, in chicken coops, in sheds, and in the vents at Burger King. There is currently no shelter on Whidbey Island for homeless unaccompanied youth under 18.

Ryan’s House is a nonprofit on Whidbey Island that strives to help youth experiencing homelessness reach their full potential academically, physically, and mentally. Its campus provides youth and young adults ages 18-24 with emergency short-term housing.

Minors cannot live in the shelter without a parent’s consent, but may participate in the Ryan’s House Host Family Program, which has placed 39 homeless unaccompanied students between the ages of 12 and 24 with host families in each student’s school district over the past five years. There are three school districts on Whidbey Island: South Whidbey School District, Coupeville School District, and Oak Harbor Public Schools.

The host families must provide students with their own room, while Ryan’s House helps supply clothing, toiletries, cell phones and cell phone minutes, and transportation to doctor appointments.

“The whole purpose is for them to have a stable setting so they can focus on school,” said Cavender. “When you’re worried about where you’re going to lay your head at night or what you’re going to eat for your next meal, or if you’re going to eat for your next meal, then you can’t really focus on that homework assignment or that big test or your SAT or anything like that.”

Mary Michell said that some of the unaccompanied youth she works with normally couch-surf — sleep on their friends’ couches.

The stigmas of unaccompanied youth

The recent South Whidbey unaccompanied graduate didn’t tell many of her teachers or friends about her living situation because of the perceptions that are associated with being homeless.

“If you admit that you’re homeless, it feels like you’re admitting you don’t have anybody to care for you and you’re unlovable,” she said.

LaVassar believes there is a stigma that unaccompanied youth live on their own because they did something wrong at home or have committed a crime. Often the youth leave to escape a threatening or harmful situation.

Of the 26 unaccompanied students in South Whidbey School District, seven earned that designation because their parents are homeless and didn’t have enough resources or space for the student; 10 left home because a parent had an addiction problem or mental illness; one became homeless because the parent passed away; four qualified because their parents left or went to jail; one left because the parent has a serious illness and cannot care for the youth and two left domestic violence situations. Only one unaccompanied student was a runaway.

The recent South Whidbey homeless graduate was bullied in high school, so she eventually enrolled in the Running Start program where she attended Skagit Valley College and completed half of her Associate of Arts degree upon graduating from high school. Running Start allows high school students to take college classes and receive credits.

Today she has her own home and is completing a college degree in psychology through Washington State University’s online program. Her grades have improved; last quarter she earned a 4.0 grade point average while working full time.

“What kept me going was my love for others,” she said. “I’ve noticed that people who have been through so much are those that have the kindest hearts. The people who have had their hearts broken in a million different ways are the ones that will do anything to prevent the pain of somebody else.”

She dreams of getting her doctorate degree and becoming a caseworker to advocate for homeless youth, which means providing a support system and resources to help the youth succeed.

“I want to be able to make a difference and change the lives of youth who don’t think they are lovable,” she said.

(This story is part of a series of news reports from the Washington State Legislature provided through a reporting internship sponsored by the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association Foundation. Reach reporter Grace Swanson at grace.swanson47@gmail.com.)