For three years, Jaysa Cooper focused only on the 24 hours ahead, unsure where she would sleep and whether she’d be able to eat. The 21-year-old couch-surfed with friends and family or slept
In December, with the help of a state program, Cooper enrolled at Yakima Valley Community College and landed in a dorm where she had her own bed, a shower and a door that locked.
“My health, mentally and physically, drastically improved,” Cooper said.
On average, more than 50% of Washington community and technical college students had insecure housing situations in 2019 — for example, they couldn’t pay their full rent or utilities. Roughly 20% of students were homeless, with no fixed place to live. Another 39% struggled to find food, according to the #RealCollege survey.
Last year, Cooper was one of 226 students participating in the Supporting Students Experiencing Homelessness Pilot, the launch of the four-year, state-funded
Two four-year colleges and four technical and community colleges offer the program, which is administered by the Washington Student Achievement Council and the Washington State Board for Community and Technical Colleges. Students now participate on six public campuses, including Eastern Washington University, Edmonds College, South Puget Sound Community College, Walla Walla Community College, Western Washington University and Yakima Valley College.
The program began working with students last February but had to quickly pivot when COVID-19 hit Washington, shutting down campuses and forcing schools to go remote. Participating students received prepaid grocery cards, and at some schools they were able to continue living on campus.
The average age of participants in the program is 29. They are mostly women and more than half are parents. A third have some kind of employment. On average, the program spent $1,224 per student providing housing and food assistance, case management, technology and transportation.
Charles Adkins, a formerly homeless college student who lobbied for the program, funded by the state Legislature in 2019, said the goal is not just about getting his peers into college but making sure they graduate.
Adkins said the state has an obligation to these vulnerable young adults, who typically have little outside support. “Parents don’t drop their children off at college, wave goodbye and never see them again,” he said.
Data gathered from the first five months of the program, February to June 2020, shows that all 109 students served were either homeless or on the verge, and 83% had marginal food security. Despite these challenges, all the students completed the term and continued to the next term.
Yet despite signs of early success for young people like Cooper, some state lawmakers are wary to invest more in the program. The Legislature is considering House Bill 1166, which would double the reach to include six more colleges. On Feb. 26, the bill was voted out of the House, but not without opposition. Some elected leaders want to wait for the pilot to be complete before investing additional taxpayer funds and expressed concerns about the expense in a year when COVID-19-related expenditures are requiring budget cuts.
Rep. Skyler Rude (R), who represents southwestern Washington, voted against HB 1166. In an appropriations committee hearing, he said although he voted for the original bill in 2019 establishing the pilot program at six schools, he is reluctant to expand it.
“It’s a tough budget year. Doubling the cost of the pilot is a little bit problematic,” he said.
Other lawmakers — including all those representing the area around Cooper’s school in the Yakima Valley — opposed even a first round of funding for the program serving homeless and foster youth in college. Those opposing the program two years ago include
: Sen. Curtis King and Reps. Chris Corry and Gina Mosbrucker, all Republicans. Corry also voted against HB 1166 at its recent hearing but did not return calls to his office seeking an explanation.
Rep. Mari Leavitt (D), who is sponsoring HB 1166, urged her Senate colleagues to support the bill during a committee hearing with a simple message. “This program already exists, and it works.”
Adkins, the formerly homeless student who pushed to start the program, noted that the original intent of the Supporting Students Experiencing Homelessness Pilot was to offer it at every college and university in Washington, but that goal was watered down during the legislative process in 2019. This year’s doubling of the program’s funding would be “bringing it closer to the original vision,” he said.
Jessica Porter, the program’s coordinator, said the need for safe housing and nutrition for young people who are struggling to improve their futures is still much greater than the pilot program can fulfill. At South Puget Sound Community College, in the early stage of the pilot, just 19 of 47 students who initially sought housing help were given support including college-leased apartments last year. “Ideally, we’d be able to support all the students who need service,” she said.
Cooper made the case for the bill’s success so far, in teary testimony before the Senate higher education committee on Feb. 2, telling senators that no longer having to deal with basic survival issues has meant she can consider her passions and life goals. Over her years of homelessness, she said she’s known many people who struggled with trauma, mental illness and addiction. Some have died of suicide.
She wants to use her education to help people who are facing these challenges. “Without this program, I wouldn’t be here,” Cooper said. “I would never have been able to realize that I had dreams that were bigger than anything I could have imagined.”