EVERETT — There are thousands of children and teens in Snohomish County who wonder where they’ll sleep each night or where they’ll find their next meal.
They’re the students who crash on couches or in spare bedrooms at friends’ houses. They might go home to a car that’s parked at the end of a rural road, or hop off the bus a few blocks from the shelter where they live. Some stay in motels or at campgrounds. Others sleep outside.
They try to wear the same kinds of clothes and do the same things as their peers. They often don’t want to explain.
The number of homeless students in Snohomish County school districts has more than doubled over the last eight school years. Last year, 3,789 students from preschool through high school were reported as homeless here, compared to 1,677 in 2007-08.
In contrast, total enrollment in local districts is about 2 percent higher than it was in 2007-08.
Last week, the state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction released data on homeless students from the 2015-16 school year.
The increase seen in the county is on par with a statewide climb. The number of homeless students across Washington also is more than double what it was eight years ago. There were 39,671 last year.
A student is considered homeless if he or she does not have “a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence,” according to federal law. Collecting data on homelessness is required under the McKinney-Vento Act, which also says that homeless students must be provided the same access to education as other students.
Tanya Ocampo, 26, works as a medical assistant in Everett and sits on the board of directors for Cocoon House, a local nonprofit that helps homeless teens and young adults.
Not long ago, she was one of them.
Ocampo started staying at Cocoon House when she was a freshman in high school. She didn’t feel safe at her previous home in Snohomish, where fights with a family member had escalated to threats, violence and 911 calls. Her mom was too ill to intervene, she said. She tried living with her dad in Vancouver but it didn’t work out. She was in and out of Cocoon House and eventually dropped out of school.
“When I wasn’t at Cocoon House, I was literally homeless,” she said. “I was sleeping outside. I was sleeping in motels. I was kind of everywhere when I wasn’t there.”
She tried a couple of alternative high schools, then decided to get her GED. She enrolled in a technical program to become a medical assistant. When she started the program, she was living in a drug house until a spot opened at Cocoon House.
“When you don’t have the basic necessities, especially when you’re a kid that age, you’re not looking to do well in the basic things like taking care of yourself and going to school,” she said. “Those aren’t the first priorities. Finding something good to eat, or finding somewhere to spend the night, those become the priorities and you overlook everything else.”
The rise in the number of homeless students is sad and disappointing, she said. There’s a short window to help them before they get caught in the generational cycle of poverty. Keeping them in school and giving them a chance to plan for the future can change the course of their lives.
She encourages people to donate to organizations that help homeless youth and families, or volunteer as a tutor, coach or advocate for young people. It’s important to provide the basics — food, warmth, shelter — but what homeless youth most often lack is family.
“Family doesn’t have to be a relative,” Ocampo said. “Family for these kids that need help is everybody. It’s the village. It’s the whole community. It’s the teacher, it’s the counselor, it’s the stranger at the coffee shop.”
Julio Cortes has worked for seven years with Cocoon House. He started as a case manager, working directly with teens who did not have a safe, steady place to sleep.
It was an eye-opening experience, he said. He worked with young people who did their best to blend in. Homeless children and teens usually don’t stand out the way an adult living on the street does, Cortes said.
The diversity of communities in Snohomish County makes it even harder to spot the problem. Youth homelessness can be different in Everett than in Sultan or Darrington. Large, wooded areas provide places where people can stay in cars, campers or tents.
“It’s in every single community in Snohomish County,” Cortes said. “It’s an issue that sometimes lies in the shadows, but it’s definitely there.”
Within 48 hours of becoming homeless, it’s likely that a young person will be approached by a gang member, a drug dealer or someone looking to sexually exploit them, Cortes said. It’s easier for teens to get into dangerous or illegal situations when they are desperate.
Children who are homeless typically fall behind in school and are less likely to graduate, which increases the odds that they’ll struggle with homelessness as adults.
“In many ways, the deck is stacked against you even before you walk in the door,” said Elizabeth Kohl, director of social services at Housing Hope.
The nonprofit provides housing for low-income families and programs to help them escape poverty. While Cocoon House works with teens and young adults, Housing Hope works with a number of families who have younger children. Many are hiding because they fear they’ll be separated, Kohl said.
Housing Hope has noticed upticks in homelessness in the Monroe and Marysville areas, spokeswoman Sara Haner said. The nonprofit’s most recent projects are Monroe Family Village and Twin Lakes Landing in Smokey Point.
The organization also runs Tomorrow’s Hope Child Development Center for infants through elementary school students.
On weekdays, five to seven children, most of them younger than 4, are picked up from local low-income housing and shelters, including the Everett Gospel Mission, and brought to Tomorrow’s Hope. They get breakfast and those who are old enough have transportation to and from school.
There also are afterschool snacks and activities, and transportation back to shelters at the end of the day.
In 2016, Washington lawmakers passed legislation that, in part, created the Homeless Student Stability Program. Snohomish County districts are among those that have received $785,000 in state money to provide staff training and build partnerships with local organizations focused on helping homeless students. Marysville is getting $25,000, Lake Stevens and Granite Falls $15,000, and Darrington $7,500.
Homeless students* in Snohomish County during the 2015-16 school year who were living:
At someone else’s house: 2,523
In a hotel or motel: 212
In a shelter: 688
Without shelter**: 192
Snohomish County homeless students by age:
Preschool (ages 3 to 5): 76
Elementary (grades K-5): 1,564
Middle school (grades 6-8): 691
High school (grades 9-12): 1,213
*Numbers likely are higher than reported. Low numbers were reported in state data as “<10” to protect student identities. Those totals were counted as “1” for this tally.
**Includes students living in cars or at parks or campgrounds