EVERETT — When Amy Perusse and Angelica Glaser talk with students, they generally avoid the word “homeless.”
They work with children and teens in the Everett School District who do not have stable homes. They talk about transition and change.
“This is a snapshot of your life,” Glaser said. “It’s not permanent.”
During the 2016-17 school year, more than 1,100 Everett students from preschool through high school did not have stable homes, according to recently released state data.
In districts across Snohomish County, at least 3,901 students fit the definition of homelessness under the McKinney-Vento Act. The federal law requires that students without a secure living situation be provided the same access to education as their peers.
The state estimates that one in every 25 students in kindergarten through 12th grade experienced homelessness during the 2016-17 school year. That’s roughly one child per classroom, says the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction.
It’s the ninth straight year that the number of students without a stable address — 40,934 statewide — has gone up from the year before.
Students who are homeless often miss more classes than their peers and may struggle to finish school. Eight of every 10 Washington students graduate on time, according to state numbers, while just over half of homeless students finish high school in four years.
Washington receives about $1 million a year in funding under McKinney-Vento, provided in grants to districts. Everett and Granite Falls received grants in the current cycle.
The money helps with transportation for students staying out of the district, and with costs for activities, clothing, shoes and school supplies, said Kayla Dupler, who works with McKinney-Vento students in Granite Falls, where 281 kids were considered homeless last year.
Districts send out forms each year so families can report if they need assistance. Staff also are trained to watch for signs of homelessness.
Dupler follows up with families when there are concerns a student may not have a stable living situation.
“It’s different with every family,” she said. “I just get to know them, ask questions, and figure out how to get them the resources they need until they get their life back on track.”
Under federal law, a student is considered homeless if they do not have “a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence.” That can include living in vehicles, tents, shelters, abandoned buildings, hotels or “doubled up” at friends’ or relatives’ houses.
In Snohomish County, nearly 2,700 students were living doubled up last school year. It often takes the form of couch surfing — staying at different places from day to day or week to week.
Another 500-plus local students were in shelters, and nearly 300 in hotels or motels. Approximately 350 did not have adequate shelter at all. Those children may sleep outside or in structures that were not meant to be lived in.
There are several reasons the number of homeless students could be going up in state data, Perusse and Glaser said. Staff are better trained to recognize and report signs of homelessness. As early learning programs expand, more preschool children are counted, too.
But it’s not just improvements in reporting. There’s been an increase in homelessness in the area, Perusse said.
“What we see a lot of times is students who are living in pretty fragile situations already, so families on the cusp of being able to afford where they’re living, and then something happens,” she said.
A lease may end and rent increases beyond their means. A student and family members may be fleeing domestic violence. A landlord may decide to sell, giving a family weeks to relocate. It’s tough to come up with the upfront costs of getting a new place.
Students without a permanent address might not consider themselves homeless because they have a roof over their head each night. Others live on the street or in cars, with limited access to basic amenities.
“It’s hard to lump any of these into one category, because every one is so different,” Perusse said. “We have students who no one would know that they’re living in a situation that qualifies. Our hope with the resources we provide is that no one would have to know.”
Districts must provide transportation from wherever the student is staying, and there’s help to pay for supplies, field trips or graduation caps and gowns, Perusse said. Food pantries or backpacks with weekend meals are available. Perusse often provides referrals to services, she said.
“Removing barriers. That’s what we’re looking at,” she said. “How are we going to make sure the student is fully participating in school?”
There are weekly grade checks in Granite Falls, said Melanie Freeman, district spokeswoman. Students can be connected with tutors and mentors. If a family is dealing with legal proceedings that take children out of school, teachers provide materials and extra time to complete work, she said. There are summer school programs and online classes.
Signs that a student may not have a stable home include frequent tardiness, chronic hunger or tiredness, gaps in learning, poor grooming, wearing the same outfit every day, and difficulty completing homework due to lack of space or supplies. There also may be behavioral issues due to stress, Perusse said.
Those signs don’t always mean a student is homeless. Perusse looks for patterns.
There are students who don’t go home due to a dangerous situation, or who are not in contact with their parents. That isn’t the norm, Perusse said. She’s seen families displaced by fire, priced out of rentals, or strained by medical or other unexpected expenses.
“I think sometimes people have a tendency to … just look at the surface. But when you look at the whole picture, I see some of the biggest heroes I have ever met in the parents of these kids,” Perusse said. “I think it’s important to realize this can happen to anybody.”
Granite Falls students have stayed in hotels in Arlington or Marysville during bad flood years, when the Stillaguamish River has swept through neighborhoods, Freeman said. Or sometimes families stay with friends for a while because mom or dad lost their job.
“Homelessness doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with the person or the family,” Freeman said. “Everybody is a job away from being homeless in these times. It’s not the choices all the time. Sometimes life just happens.”
Kari Bray: 425-339-3439; email@example.com