Sometimes, a child doesn’t tell Judy Hunsberger what’s wrong. She sees it in his face.
“He was a rambunctious, a happy-go-lucky kid,” Hunsberger said of a student at Phantom Lake Elementary School. “One day he was just really quiet. And I asked him, ‘What’s wrong?’ He said, ‘I’m just not myself.’”
The problem, Hunsberger learned, was that the boy’s family had become homeless. She helped connect him with services for homeless families, such as clothing, food and housing programs.
Hunsberger handles these encounters in her job working with Phantom Lake students who need human services or extra help with school subjects. She sees firsthand the growing number of homeless students in the Bellevue School District, which in four years has seen its homeless student population double.
“Sometimes they’re just feeling out of place. I just touch base with them, to see what’s going on,” Hunsberger said.
Bellevue is among many school districts statewide grappling with how to help growing populations of homeless students, even as budget cuts further slash their ability to meet their federal obligation to do so.
Under the federal McKinney-Vento Act, school districts are required to identify and report homeless students and to guarantee those students transportation so they can stay at their original schools even if they have been forced to find emergency shelter outside the district. The districts are required to track how many students are living in motels, doubled up with relatives, in cars or in shelters.
Being homeless can affect how children learn, can lead to depression, and can be misdiagnosed as learning disabilities, labels that stick with a child for years. (See related story by clicking here.)
“The main goal of identifying kids is so they can stay in their school of origin, so they have consistency with their peers, teachers and educational progress,” said Melinda Dyer, program supervisor for Education of Homeless Children and Youth for the state Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction. That means providing cabs, bus passes or other means of transportation for kids, even if it means they are commuting up to an hour and a half a day to school.
In Bellevue, the lagging economy was a huge factor in the increase of the number of families that became homeless in the past five years. And in the Bellevue School District--where the percentage of students who qualify for free and reduced-price lunch is far below the state percentage--that was very evident.
The number of homeless students doubled between 2006-07 and 2009-10, according to figures from the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction provided by Investigate West, which partnered with Patch on this report.
In 2006-07, the number of homeless students reported was 104 out of 16,569 students, or 0.62 percent of total enrollment. In 2009-10, the number of homeless students reported was 202 out of 17,870 students, or 1 percent.
Part of that increase was better reporting, said Betty Takahashi, the district’s liaison for homeless students.
But most of the homeless families in Bellevue are considered the working poor whose jobs were affected by the economy–those who worked in restaurants and retail and whose jobs disappeared or had fewer hours after the economy tanked in 2008.
“Many people are moving to Bellevue because there are jobs here in the service industry,” Takahashi said. “And the rents have gotten so high that the people who work here … cannot afford to live here.”
“They are living with $1,200 a month for a family of four,” Takahashi said. “Many families had their hours cut. … You can’t afford an apartment here on what you’re making. And you have to make the choice to commute, but with gas prices the way they are….”
Doubling up, long commutes
So families in that situation choose between spending all their money on a commute, or trying to make do with a living situation in Bellevue, Takahashi said.
For those who are homeless in Bellevue, that can mean doubling up with another family or a relative or living in a temporary situation, such as a shelter or a motel, Takahashi said. Very few are living in their cars or on the street, according to the statistics. (Click here for a look at what places homeless Bellevue students were living in 2009-10.)
Some families, however, do end up living outside the district.
Takahashi and Hunsberger said that their main priority is to help families find a stable situation. Some of the children are being transported from as far away as Duvall, Redmond and Kenmore.
“Most of the families, they want to find housing and a job,” Takahashi said. “And most of the families, they do find a job within a year.”
Part of Hunsberger’s job at Phantom Lake is to help connect families with the financial assistance that they need to keep their children in a stable situation. Sometimes that means coming in at 5:30 a.m. to get on the phone with a service agency on the East Coast that can connect a family with food, clothing or assistance that can help them get into housing.
A report released in December shows 21,826 homeless students statewide in the 2009-2010 school year, a 30 percent increase in three years. That reporting period compares the numbers of homeless students reported in the 2006-2007 school year, before the recession began in December of 2007, to the most current full year, 2009-2010.
Bellevue isn’t attracting more homeless families because it offers more services or has schools with good reputations; the increase is directly related to when the economy began to sink.
“They’re not here because they were homeless and we are a great support,” Hunsberger said. “It just hits you.”
“They’re living with grandparents because they can’t afford the rent,” she said. “Or their landlords were foreclosed and they can’t afford a first, last and deposit, to be honest.”
While the number of homeless students in the Bellevue School District this year dropped slightly–202 in 2009-10 to 158 in March of this year–the economy is still shaky.
Just this spring, Takahashi heard from 10 families who lost their jobs over spring break at one school.