Number of homeless students in state grows

TACOMA — The number of homeless students in Washington schools is continuing to grow, according to a new study.

The state’s large urban counties — Pierce, King, Snohomish, Spokane and Clark — educated more than half of the more than 26,000 homeless Washington students counted during the 2010-11 school year, according to an analysis by Columbia Legal Services. The advocacy group analyzed data reported by local school districts over five school years, ending with 2010-11, The News-Tribune reported Saturday.

Seattle had the most homeless students, with 1,324, followed by Tacoma, with 1,273, but the researchers also found that almost one-third of the state’s homeless students lived in rural areas.

The percentage of Washington students classified as homeless in 2010-11 was up nearly 20 percent from the previous year and more than 50 percent over the five-year span, according to the report.

“The impact this has on families needs to be highlighted,” said Columbia’s Katara Jordan. “This is an issue that affects everyone. It hurts communities.”

The federal government defines homeless students as anyone who lacks a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence, including children from families living with other families or in substandard housing such as a dwelling that lacks running water. Also included are children awaiting foster care placement.

Mary Grant, teen outreach director for the Tacoma-based Camp Fire Orca Council, has been working with homeless youths for a dozen years. Grant said she’s watched as housing for unaccompanied teens has diminished.

“They are living in dangerous situations,” she said, adding that many of the kids she works with have been the victims of trauma or are running from parents with substance abuse or mental health issues. “They are fearful they will be snatched up and thrown into foster care.”

Many are “couch surfing,” moving from one friend’s home to another. Some sleep in unheated garages or farm buildings.

Grant said a coalition of government and social service providers is working to close the housing gap for Pierce County’s homeless teens.

Federal funding to assist homeless kids and their families is limited. In 2011-12, for example, the state distributed just over $700,000 to 23 of the state’s 295 school districts. Grant money can be used only for educational support, not for transportation. School districts bear those costs themselves.

More affordable housing is one answer, but not the only one, Jordan said. She cited a need for more collaboration between schools and housing agencies.

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