It’s been nearly a decade since I’ve taken any sort of class, and I still groan at the sight of the backpacks at Fred Meyer. Summer’s only just begun, it seems, when the notebooks and pencils move from the back of the store to the seasonal endcaps.
But for many Seattle-area kids, the appearance of school supplies means a safe place to be, dependable meals and a break from the stresses of homelessness.
In King County, an estimated 4,000 children and youth are homeless — 800 of whom are unaccompanied or without a parent. They sleep in tents, in cars, in shelters and on friends’ couches. However, it’s hard to quantify exactly how many kids are displaced in a given week or month. Domestic violence, rental increases, immigration issues and health care costs are just a few of the very-adult problems that force children and families outside each night.
Homelessness isn’t simply a crisis of poverty in the immediate; it’s a matter of long-term economic stability (or lack thereof). When students lack stable housing, their grades suffer and they’re more likely to exhibit behavioral issues. Often they may act out, prompting disciplinary action and, potentially, suspension, which has been shown to have a direct impact on assessments and testing. Those early trials have a compounding effect, and many students who are homeless as children become homeless again in adulthood.
Yet even among the struggle, returning to school can be a source of comfort for many children.
A program funded by federal dollars and operated by the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction seeks to provide meals during the summer to children who typically eat two or more meals at school. Unfortunately, many kids who could be accessing free food in the summertime do not; according to Northwest Harvest, “only 11% of students regularly receiving subsidized school meals participate in the summer meal program.” Once they’re back at school, they’re much more likely to be provided with breakfast, lunch and possibly even an after-school meal.
For some students without stable housing, school may also be their sole source of health care. King County’s in-school health care program, which is paid for largely by levy dollars, provides nearly 6,000 students each year with care, right in their classroom. The program addresses both mental and physical health — critical for kids living outside or in shelters.
Still, school isn’t a substitute for a stable home life, and just because kids look forward to going back to their school meals and safe classrooms doesn’t mean they get to stay. Homelessness has a substantial impact on a student’s ability to stay in school and keep up with the curriculum. It’s hard to catch the bus when you’re not sure where you’ll sleep tonight.
Hanna Brooks Olsen is a writer and policy consultant. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, The Nation, Salon, Fast Company and Vice. View previous Access Denied columns.
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