In 2016, the Washington State Legislature passed the Homeless Student Stability and Opportunity Gap Act to address disparities among students experiencing housing insecurity. The law established the Homeless Student Stability Program, which provides school districts and nonprofits with grants to help these students. A major goal of the program is to standardize the definition of homelessness and housing insecurity, to prevent students who don’t meet specific criteria from slipping through the cracks.
As someone who grew up in a small, rural town in western Washington, I can confirm that young people experiencing homelessness have limited resources. For example, there is just one homeless shelter in my hometown, which is only open during the winter months and only to adults 18 or older. A 2019 report by Schoolhouse Washington showed that rural regions report much higher rates of student homelessness than cities. So where does that leave the state’s rural youth experiencing homelessness?
The Homeless Student Stability Program is a great step toward eradicating youth housing insecurity in Washington. These grants may be making a dent in youth experiencing homelessness. According to a report by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the number of unaccompanied homeless youth decreased by 7% between 2019 and 2020. However, this figure excludes people who are couch surfing, believed by some to be the largest group of young people experiencing homelessness.
At 16, I began to couch surf with friends until their parents grew understandably tired of housing a “troubled” teenager. I ended up at a family friend’s house, then got kicked out after a couple months. On rare occasions, I slept in my car. I wish an adult had seen the signs — an honors student skipping class, rapidly losing weight, ranting at teachers when I did attend class — and had offered me help. Unfortunately, resources and social services in schools are lacking. The constant state of insecurity I felt took a toll on my mental health, and I stopped going to school.
Homelessness negatively affects many aspects of a student’s academic life — it reduces test scores, attendance, lowers graduation rates and adds to the risk of suspension from school.
“This is clear evidence that we need tailored solutions and targeted resources specifically for homelessness,” said Daniel Zavala, interim director of the nonprofit Building Changes.
Unfortunately, not everyone identified by the Homeless Student Stability Program finds housing. During the 2019 fiscal year, the program aided 1,520 people in 650 families. Seventy-four percent “secured stable housing.” Since its induction in 2017, the amount of families helped by the Homeless Student Stability Program has risen. Not only does the program provide funding, it also helps solidify formal partnerships between school districts and nonprofits serving students and families experiencing housing insecurity.
The McKinney-Vento Act is a federal law, enacted before the Homeless Student Stability Act, that protects people experiencing homelessness, including students. It requires that schools provide free transportation to and from campus. Students must be transported to the school that they most recently attended, regardless of the school district a foster family resides in.
In many rural communities, this stipulation comes into play. In my community, for example, it was not uncommon for a homeless student to get transported from another county to attend school. This raises other concerns about the effects on the student’s ability to succeed — they would likely have to wake up earlier, and get home later, to allow time for their transport. This could affect their time to do school work, not to mention their sleep schedule.
While the Homeless Student Sustainability and the McKinney-Vento acts both seek to help students and families experiencing homelessness, many gaps still exist. Students of color are at higher risk of becoming homeless. Rural communities have fewer resources available to help alleviate homelessness. In towns and cities that lack resources, students may have to leave the area to find secure housing. More housing and resources must be made accessible to house students and ensure that they can focus on their academic success.
Young people are our most precious and vulnerable asset for the future — and they should be treated accordingly. We just need more resources to make that happen.