Bellingham Public Schools and community partners received two grants totaling more than $247,000 to help support homeless students during the 2017-18 school year. The grants — $195,000 from the Washington state Department of Commerce and $52,228 from the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction — will help schools in Bellingham and elsewhere in Whatcom County identify homeless students and bring stability to their lives.
Bellingham is one of only three school districts in the state to receive both grants. Bellingham Public Schools took the lead in applying for the two grants, but they benefit all seven school districts in the county including Blaine, Ferndale, Lynden, Nooksack Valley, Mount Baker and Meridian. Bellingham and the other county school districts are working with two nonprofit housing programs, the Opportunity Council and Northwest Youth Services, to eliminate barriers to stable housing for homeless families and “unaccompanied youth” — students who are not in the custody of a parent or legal guardian.
The need for stable housing is growing, according to data compiled by Bellingham’s Homeless Support Program. The number of homeless students identified in Bellingham Public Schools in 2007-08 was 364, compared to 556 in 2016-17. Teachers and staff have been doing a better job of identifying homeless students in recent years, which accounts for part of the increase. But some of the rise in student homelessness is a result of the economy, specifically the highly competitive housing market, according to Roxana Parise and Sarah Simpson, Bellingham’s homeless liaisons.
Bellingham’s apartment vacancy rate was less than 1 percent, according to data collected earlier this year. The average monthly rent in Bellingham was $1,676 in June 2017, up from $888 just five years earlier.
Some families seeking help from the Homeless Support Program are homeless for the first time ever because their rents were increased beyond what they could afford.
“It’s challenging for a parent who makes minimum wage to afford their rent,” Parise said.
Homeless students might live in a shelter or motel room, or they might sleep in a car or tent. Students are also considered homeless if they are “doubled up,” living in another family’s home due to economic hardship. Homeless students often don’t have enough to eat or a place to do homework, and they tend to miss a lot of school. Not surprisingly, state data shows that this type of instability in a student’s day-to-day life creates significant academic challenges. The graduation rate for homeless students is 56 percent in Washington state, compared to 82 percent for the overall population.
Whatcom County school districts have a long history of helping homeless students succeed in school. Clothing vouchers are available to some students in partnership with the Assistance League of Bellingham, and high school counselors work with The Giving Circle to provide food for unaccompanied youth beyond the school lunch. The Department of Commerce and OSPI grants bolster this type of effort and also ensure that students have better access to housing, health care, and other basic needs, through the Opportunity Council and Northwest Youth Services. Some of the grant money is even set aside to cover rental application fees and other incidental costs that can be barriers to housing.
Bellingham Public Schools received the same two grants last school year, but this year’s awards take the important step of expanding the benefits countywide. A portion of the OSPI grant supports an unaccompanied youth data coordinator. Lisa McReynolds collects data for all seven school districts so the Homeless Support Team can better understand and serve this especially vulnerable group.
Unaccompanied youth are a high priority in the state’s efforts to address homelessness. Older children are sometimes asked to leave if a family is experiencing homelessness, so the parents can better care for the younger ones. Among the many other benefits these grants provide, they will help families in such dire situations stay together.
Photo: Sarah Simpson, Roxana Parise and Lisa McReynolds support homeless students from their office at the Family Resource Center at Carl Cozier Elementary School.