The growing crisis of homeless kids

Aug 14, 2019

Savannah is squinting as she thinks. The question she's trying to answer would be easy for most ninth graders: How many schools have you gone to? Savannah has to do some quick mental math.

"About 14 in the last six years," she says.

That's more than two schools a year.

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Savannah lives in Spokane Valley, Washington, a sprawling suburb east of Spokane. Her parents split up about six years ago. Then her mom fell behind on the bills, and they lost their place. For several years after that, they were constantly on the move. They slept in cars, hotel rooms or on someone's couch. Most of the time, she was with her mom, but sometimes she stayed with other people: friends, acquaintances, her teenage sister.

"I was kind of everywhere," she says. "Sleeping kind of wherever I could."

Savannah was one of 1.3 million school kids that the U.S. Department of Education tallied as homeless in its most recent count, the largest number ever recorded. The majority of homeless people are adults on their own, but the number of homeless families and kids has grown dramatically as the amount of affordable housing has shrunk in many cities. The number of homeless kids in public schools has increased by about 70 percent over the past decade, according to the Education Department.

Spokane has seen its share of that increase, and that's why the city's Open Doors family shelter is so busy.

The shelter is in the basement of a church in a residential neighborhood close to downtown Spokane. At dawn on a weekday morning this past winter, families were waking up. They had spent the night on the floor on mats spaced a few feet apart. Sixty-five people slept here overnight.

"About half of those are kids," says Joe Ader, the shelter's executive director. "Most of those are under the age of 12."

The housing crisis in Seattle has been all over the news, but even in Spokane, a four-hour drive away in eastern Washington's agricultural belt, the housing market is tight. Ader says the vacancy rate for rentals hovered around 2 percent for several years. That's low. At the same time, home prices and rents have increased faster than wages, just as they have in cities across the country.

"And so for families that are right on the edge, sometimes those increases just put them out of the market," Ader says. "A lot of the families that we have here are actually working. That's pretty typical for us."

As Ader speaks, parents crowd into the kitchen to fix breakfast. They're hustling because it's almost time for the school buses to arrive.

"Our kids like school," Ader says. "They like that consistency. They like that safe place to be. For our kids, summer breaks are not their favorite." He remembers a volunteer talking with a group of kids last summer. "The night that school let out, she came in and was like, 'Kids, who's excited about summer?' And it was dead silence."

Homelessness takes its toll

The word "homeless" conjures up an image of a single adult sleeping in a tent under a bridge or in a park — desperate people living on the street. And while a few kids may find themselves in that scenario, the overwhelming number of children classified as homeless aren't living under bridges. Instead, their families are enduring periods of unstable housing and moving from place to place: emergency shelters, cars, houses of relative or friends. Regardless of the details, experts agree that unstable housing often has serious consequences for kids.

"Homelessness is devastating to all aspects of child development," says Barbara Duffield, the executive director of SchoolHouse Connection, a nonprofit in Washington, D.C., that studies homelessness and education.

She says the effects of homelessness start piling up when kids are still in diapers. "There was a lot of research done this past year on infants who experience homelessness," Duffield says. Babies born into homelessness suffer from low birth weight, and they're more likely to be hospitalized during their infancy. "So they're starting out life in a compromised position."

By the time homeless children reach school age, they're likely to already be behind their peers academically. And Duffield says they tend to stay there. Not only are homeless kids less likely to graduate from high school, Duffield says, they're also more likely to have physical and mental health problems.

"More bullying, more post-traumatic stress disorder, more eating disorders," Duffield says. "Homelessness itself has an impact above and beyond the poverty. Everything from absenteeism to graduation, we see quite a disproportionate impact."

Research suggests those effects can carry through to adulthood, especially if a student doesn't finish high school. "Lack of a high school [diploma] or GED is actually the top risk factor for experiencing homelessness as a young adult," Duffield says. "That then puts them at risk of experiencing homelessness as they become older." That perpetuates the cycle of poverty and unstable housing into another generation.

Staying in school and graduating is a homeless kid's surest way out of generational poverty. But here's the catch: Being homeless often makes it hard to get to school and hard to do well in school.

That was the case for Savannah.

Helping kids show up

"I've been to so many schools, I'm just so used to being the new kid and not really getting used to the school," she says. Sometimes she didn't have transportation. Other times, she was in a new district and didn't want to face being the new kid yet again. Sometimes kids picked on her. "When I was in middle school, like I would just never actually show up."

But that's changed.

On a chilly Wednesday morning in February, Savannah and her 12th-grade sister, Jordan, arrive for a meeting at Mica Peak High School in Spokane Valley.

They're greeted by a short, smiling woman with a long braid of blond hair. This is Leslie Camden-Goold, a social worker with the Central Valley School District who keeps tabs on the 400 students in the district who have been identified as homeless. It's Camden-Goold's job to help kids like Jordan and Savannah get to, and stay in, school and graduate. She helped the sisters get into this alternative school that has a flexible schedule. She got them passes for city buses so they could travel to and from school. She connected them with a program that sends kids home with a sack of food every Friday to help their families eat during the weekend. She set them up with doctors and counselors, and she helped them get legal advice about moving in with their aunt.

Now they're living with their aunt and day-to-day life is more stable. Both girls are showing up at school and passing their classes.

The data shows that going to a lot of different schools — like Savannah and Jordan have — is common with kids who are homeless. And that's a problem, because students do best if they not only stay in school but stay in the same school.

"Every time a student moves schools they lose four to six months of academic learning," says Liza Burell, the program director at Building Changes, a nonprofit in Seattle that develops programs focused on homeless families and kids. "It's very hard to recoup that learning being in a new environment. Catching up is really, really hard."

So people like Camden-Goold try to keep homeless kids in the same school. But that's challenging.

Back in her office, she's on the phone with a school secretary about a kindergartener she works with.

"Is he at school?" she asks. He isn't. Camden-Goold heard from the school transportation department that the boy hasn't been at his bus stop this week. The front office at his school reports that he's missed a couple days of class. So Camden-Goold dials a number for the boy's mom.

"I'll see if I can figure out what is going on," she says. But no luck. She gets a recorded message that the number can't be reached. Probably the phone bill didn't get paid.

"So I couldn't get ahold of Mom," she says. "This happens a lot." She sends a message to an old email she has for the mom, but it's a long shot.

Camden-Goold has been working with this family for a while: the mother, the boy in kindergarten, and his brother in sixth grade. "For a time, they were living in their car," she says. "The last we knew of them, they were doubled up with a friend."

"Doubled up" means squeezing in with someone else out of economic necessity.

"Most often it looks like staying with somebody temporarily," says Barbara Duffield of SchoolHouse Connection. "Maybe even someone you don't know, because there's nowhere else to go."

And it's increasingly common, because so many families are unable to afford housing.

"Staying with other people is the biggest category of children and youth who are homeless and enrolled in public school," she says.

About 75 percent of the kids the Department of Education identifies as homeless are doubled up.

One reason is that there aren't many shelters that cater to families. Another is that parents are often slow to ask for help if they lose their housing. Many of them are reluctant to turn to social service agencies.

"They don't know what's going to happen to them if they actually identify themselves," Duffield says. "They're afraid their kids are going to be taken away from them."

Some recent research shows that kids who are doubled up are as likely to struggle in school as kids who meet other definitions of homelessness. In 2018, the nonprofit Building Changes in Seattle compared kids who were doubled up with kids who were living in shelters or cars or hotels around the state. The analysis found that the two groups of kids face the same academic challenges. Both groups have an increased chance of being suspended, and they lag behind their peers in reading, writing and math. And both groups miss about the same amount of school.

That's why people like Leslie Camden-Goold spend so much time arranging transportation for homeless kids. She's back on the phone again with the school secretary, still trying to figure out why the kindergartener hasn't been catching his bus. No one's heard back from the boy's mother. Camden-Goold will keep trying.

Growing number of homeless kids U.S. Department of Education data shows that the number of kids with unstable housing has increased by 70 percent in the past decade. The department counts kids who lack permanent housing, including includes families that are "doubled up" — living with other people temporarily out of financial necessity.

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education

It's the law

School districts are required by federal law to arrange transportation for homeless kids. That law is called the McKinney-Vento Homelessness Assistance Act, and it went into effect back in 1987.

At the time, homelessness was an emerging crisis in America, and the law established that kids who are homeless have a legal right to stay in the same school, and they have a legal right to transportation. If a homeless child must change schools, they have a right to be enrolled in the new school immediately, without having to wait for paperwork or for meetings.

The law provides some money to schools for programs to help homeless kids, but not much. In 2019, that McKinney-Vento money averaged out to about $70 per year for each homeless child in the country. That's a fraction of what schools spend just transporting kids who are homeless. The state of Washington got $1.1 million in McKinney-Vento money in 2018. That same year, schools in the state spent about $32 million just transporting homeless students.

Instead of paying to bus homeless kids, David Bley of the Gates Foundation says it would be cheaper — and more humane — to keep families housed. Bley oversees grants aimed at homelessness and education in the Pacific Northwest. He says schools can't solve the problem of homelessness, but maybe they can make a dent. Some school districts are teaming up with outside groups to create programs that give vulnerable families small amounts of money to keep them from losing their housing and ending up on the streets or in a shelter.

Giving families a little money at just the right time can make all the difference, Bley says. This approach can save money, "and it's a much more humane way to help people out of a jam."

That's what a group called Priority Spokane did. It created a three-year pilot program to reduce the number of homeless students at three elementary schools.

The strategy was to work through the schools to find families on the brink of becoming homeless and keep those families in their homes. Priority Spokane put a community health worker in each of the three schools, and it was that person's job to identify kids whose families were in danger of losing their housing.

"So often it's lunch ladies and school secretaries and teachers that are really seeing these are children who need help," says Ryan Oelrich, the executive director of Priority Spokane. "This is a child who's worn the same clothes for three days. This is a child who is repeatedly forgetting their lunch. These are all indicators to us that maybe there are some problems at home that our community health workers could help with."

The workers connected families with existing social services, but they also had a fund to help families out of financial tight spots. In one case, Oelrich says a $72 car repair meant a parent could keep commuting to work and keep paying the rent.

"In that first year, I think we would have been very happy with just housing and stabilizing 50 percent of the students and families that we were working with," he says.

They did that and more. Of all the families they worked with in the first year, 78 percent kept their housing.

Oelrich says that on average, it cost less than $1,000 to keep each family in its home for a couple of years.

"And that's versus if a family becomes homeless, the thousands of dollars that we're paying to rehouse them," Oelrich says. "So we absolutely know that we save money housing folks. There's no doubt."

In addition, families that lose their housing are often traumatized. "Especially the kids," Oelrich says. So that's another incentive to keep families in their homes.

At the Gates Foundation, David Bley says he's seen a number of success stories like this — schools that have actually decreased the number of families who fall into homelessness and schools that have boosted the graduation rates for homeless kids.

"But [we've] had a very difficult time systematically spreading those kinds of practices and models across all public schools," Bley says. "It's very easy in public education to see a school that looks like a shining example on a hill, because they're doing the right thing, but it has proven to be very difficult to spread and replicate whatever that secret sauce is across all schools."

Small victories

On a Saturday morning in June, Leslie Camden-Goold, the school social worker from Spokane Valley, is at a local sports arena. It's graduation day for University High, and the students are decked out in their black caps and gowns. They're lining up for their big entrance. Camden-Goold is walking through the crowd and sees some familiar faces.

"Brandon!" She calls to a boy across the room. "Hey dude," she says with a laugh and a wave. "And there's Shelby," she says with a deep sigh as she spots a girl walking by. "I forgot my Kleenex. Dang it."

Camden-Goold has been a social worker in the Central Valley School District for 18 years, and she's seen a lot of graduation ceremonies. She goes to all of them, because she works with homeless kids in every school. In Spokane Valley's three high schools, she's worked with 40 seniors this year. Of those 40 seniors, 31 are graduating, and six more made plans to finish up in a few months. "So they're close," Camden-Goold says.

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District-wide, the kids identified as homeless are lagging a bit behind average for graduating.

"But every single one of them, if they're walking across the stage, it's a victory," Camden-Goold says. And seeing them here today brings back memories.

"Helping them get to school. Helping them get homework assignments done. Helping them talking to teachers about their situation and kind of having the staff give them some grace for what they're going through. And it's all about that. It's all about lifting these kids up and putting a safety net underneath them and helping them graduate."

Today she's happy. But she's tired.

"My mind's kind of mush right now," she says. "It's emotionally draining. I'm so excited to see these students graduate, but I got a whole group of new students coming up."

Chris Julin

Students on the Move is one of three audio documentaries this season from the Educate podcast — stories about education, opportunity, and how people learn.