Jami Pitman and Emily Humphrey-Krigbaum bear witness to Whatcom County students in desperate living situations: staying in tents in the forest without electricity or cell service, sleeping in run-down buildings with no heat or insulation, barbequing food in parking lots.
Currently, Pitman knows of multiple situations in which four families are crammed into one residence.
The two women encounter these situations as family support liaisons with Bellingham Public Schools (BPS). Present in all local school districts, liaisons interact with students and families considered homeless under the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, a federal law guaranteeing equal education to all children regarding of living situation.
Liaisons also help students and their families to access community-based homeless resources, like those provided through Whatcom and Skagit County operations including the Opportunity Council, Lydia Place, Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Services (DVSAS), Northwest Youth Services (NWYS) and Skagit County YMCA.
These liaisons — called family support coordinators in some districts — find themselves increasingly busy throughout both counties, as the number of homeless students continues to gradually increase at all levels of public education.
“It’s very hard work to see every day,” says Isabel Meaker, BPS’ executive director for family engagement. “It can get to you.”
The reasons students find themselves homeless are myriad, and include fleeing domestic violence, abuse, and uncomfortable foster care situations. Becoming a teenage parent or being estranged from family based on sexual orientation are also causes.
But economic issues focused around rent prices, driven by inflation, have become a significant contributor to homelessness following the exhaustion of rental assistance many families received during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Those living paycheck-to-paycheck can easily find themselves in dire straits when rents increase beyond a family’s fixed income, when a landlord sells a property or when the families’ income level is just beyond the reach of rental assistance.
“We’ve had a number of families who can’t afford to stay in the house that they’re at,” said Ian Linterman, the student services director for the Mount Baker School District. “So they maybe end up living in a vehicle or in another unsheltered way.”
The state’s Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) applies the McKinney-Vento Act definition of homelessness, which includes all students living in motels, hotels, trailer parks or campgrounds due to lack of other choices, as well as those living in cars, parks, public spaces, abandoned buildings, substandard housing, and bus or train stations.
Those deemed homeless also include children residing in emergency or transitional shelters, whose primary nighttime residence isn’t usually used for regular sleeping (like a park bench) and those sharing housing due to housing loss, economic hardship or similar reason. These students also include “unaccompanied youth,” which are defined as those not under the care of a parent or guardian.
Minors in need
The latter are showing up more frequently at the Ground Floor, the NWYS day-use center in Bellingham for young adults under age 24.
NWYS Executive Director Jason McGill said the center accommodates those minors as needed, providing showers, laundry equipment, food, clothing and a place to temporarily hang out.
But for those who are not legally adults, NWYS is unable to set them up with adult housing resources, leading them to return to encampments or wherever else they’re staying at night, he said.
Some minors are connected to a case manager at The PAD (Positive Adolescent Development) — a 90-day emergency shelter facility for 13- to 17-year-olds. The facility is licensed for only 12 people and functions best with just eight, McGill said.
In Skagit County, McKinney-Vento liaisons like Kim Welling work closely with their area’s equivalent of The PAD: YMCA’s Oasis Teen Shelter. The Mount Vernon shelter features up to 91-day stays for homeless or runaway teens, and can house nine people at a time.
Welling, who works in the Burlington-Edison School District, said she knows of a student in her district staying at the facility right now, and recently had to set up transportation to ensure the student could get to and from the facility to their school.
Districts tend to coordinate well on transportation needs for these students, she added, often arranging for one district to transport a student to school and another to return them to their shelter. In some cases, she’s seen students transported to Skagit all the way from Bellingham, as remaining in the same district can provide a measure of continuity in a student’s life that otherwise lacks stability.
Still, Welling sees other students and their families stuck in difficult circumstances. Those include multiple families who migrate between two corporately owned campgrounds in La Conner and Bow. Welling said she has asked campground staff if those families can stay longer than the company’s maximum stay policy of several weeks, but has been told they cannot allow exceptions.
“That’s quite a barrier for a family, especially in the winter,” Welling said.
Many students are doubled up with other families, sleeping on couches, floors or even in laundry rooms, she added. Taking in extra people indefinitely provides those families with their own risk, as allowing people not named in a lease may subject them to eviction if discovered by a landlord.
In Bellingham, some families who have not received housing assistance from Lydia Place or Opportunity Council find themselves staying at the Lighthouse Mission’s Base Camp facility, a location not ideal for young children, Meaker said.
A widening crisis
In the most recent annual report on homelessness from the Whatcom County Coalition to End Homelessness(WCCEH), data suggests a widening crisis.
From the 2020–21 to 2021–22 school years, homelessness among Whatcom County students increased 31%, after an overall decrease during the previous two academic years.
Report card data from OSPI also shows a troubling trend: during the 2022–23 school year, both Whatcom and Skagit counties had higher percentages of homeless students than the statewide average of 3.4%.
In Whatcom County, OSPI data showed 1,007 homeless students among 27,083 students, or 3.7% of overall enrollment in 2022–23. Linterman said current countywide numbers translate to a 23% increase compared to the 2019–20 academic year.
In 2022–23, the Bellingham school district recorded the highest number of homeless students in all districts with 524, while Mount Baker School District recorded the highest percentage of homeless (6.1%).
The number of homeless students in the Bellingham district jumped by about 150 students between the 2021–22 and 2022–23 academic years. At Mount Baker, the number of homeless students has doubled since the 2014–15 school year, and in Lynden, a doubling of homelessness students has taken place in just two years.
In Skagit County, 757 homeless students were counted among 18,678 students, or 4.0% of enrollment. The Mount Vernon School District had 229 homeless students in 2022–23, while the smaller district of La Conner found 5.8% of its 554 students to be unhoused.
Unsurprisingly, the lack of stability that accompanies homelessness leads to substantially worse student outcomes at the high school level.
In Bellingham schoos, OSPI data from the 2021–22 school year shows that 85.4% of the Class of 2022 graduated on time, with a dropout rate of 7.7%. Among students deemed homeless, only 59.8% graduated, with 25.8% dropping out altogether.
In the Mount Baker district, those numbers are even worse. Just 53.8% of homeless students graduated in 2022, and over 38% dropped out.
Chasing the money
Mount Baker and other Whatcom County school districts are part of a local homelessness consortium, Linterman said, and receive funding from OSPI grants that distribute federal funding for student support services including McKinney-Vento.
But that grant funding is competitive. And while Whatcom’s consortium has received the funding for nine straight years and districts have other funding pots to draw from, a reduction in any funding would reduce student support.
Current reductions have already illustrated that. Linterman, Welling and Meaker all said that additional federal funds dispersed during the pandemic made a significant difference for the families their liaisons work to help by providing money for rent and utilities, hotel rooms for the unhoused, and transportation and food needs.
Welling has recently written grants for additional funding to cover clothing, school supplies and athletic fees, as well as for tutoring and mentoring students at risk of chronic absenteeism. Still, she said the amount of funding help needed seems to be increasing each year, even as homeless student numbers in her district stay relatively similar.
Liaisons like Humphrey-Krigbaum do their best to connect families with every resource they are entitled to.
“We don’t have power to override lists with homeless housing programs, but we can make sure families aren’t missing out on anything because of paperwork,” she said.
Start early, with prevention
Moving forward, McGill said he thinks part of the solution to youth homelessness is early intervention: providing district support staff that work at prevention instead of when someone is already in crisis.
“We have to start in middle school,” he said. “Because from there, you start to see the trajectory of young people and where they’re headed to.”
He also hopes for more “third spaces” — places that exist outside of school and home where students can be guided away from falling into bad situations, with respite beds, providing places where young people and their families can attempt mediation for disputes.
McGill said NWYS is also working with Sen. Sharon Shewmake on funding for a second version of The PAD in the Ferndale area, which will be capable of housing another dozen homeless youths.
Meaker hopes more affordable housing can stem the tide of families finding themselves in situations where students will struggle.
“That’s a really heartbreaking thing,” she says. “I feel like either Bellingham is going to change and become this ‘rich people’ city, or something has to done. If we don’t put the things in place to actually create this environment for (economic and cultural) diversity, it’s not going to happen.”
— Reported by Matt Benoit