The number of homeless students in Washington state has risen from 27,000 to 30,000, according to the Office of the Superintendent of Public Institution (OSPI).
“It’s been going up every single year. We’re not surprised,” said Nathan Olson, spokesperson at OSPI. “One student homeless is a sad thing; 30,000 is a sad thing.”
Despite the 11.8 percent increase in homeless students, some believe that 30,000 is an underestimate.
“I still think there are definitely students that are being left out of this number,” said Rachel Cullen, a law student at the University of Washington.
Cullen is an advocate for a bill in Olympia that would require public schools to get better at identifying homeless students. The law would implement improved data tracking in a more usable form. Cullen said this might include truancy rates and dropout rates further broken down by variables like race and migrant status.
“If you know more about a given population, you are better able to make services available that are appropriate,” said Cullen.
While the increase indicates that the problem of homelessness among students is worsening, identifying specific causes remains complicated.
“It’s really hard to pinpoint, if it’s even possible to pinpoint, why the numbers keep going up,” said Olson.
However, Olson was encouraged by the continuing effort at education on the subject. Raising awareness is one of the primary purposes of these estimates, he said.
“I think the state has done a phenomenal job about educating the students about the services that homeless students receive. Just because you are homeless doesn’t mean you should have your education interrupted.”
Olson said this awareness might counteract some of the stigma associated with homelessness and result in more students identifying themselves as homeless and accessing services they are entitled to in Washington state.
Katara Jordan, an attorney with the Children and Youth Project at Columbia Legal Services, confirmed that statistics like the dropout rate for homeless students are dire and that the more we learn about this group, the more accurate the estimate will become.
“Once we have a better infrastructure in place, those numbers that we are not capturing will come to light,” Jordan said.
“I’m really hoping that the increasing numbers will cause policymakers to really look at this population and what we can do to help support them and improve the educational outcomes and figure out ways to bring the educational and housing systems together,” said Jordan, citing the growing lack of affordable housing as one factor in the upward trend of homelessness.
“I think it can go a long way not only for improving educational outcomes for this group, but for the state as a whole,” said Jordan.
Data is collected on homeless students each year under the McKinney-Vento Act. Enacted in 1987, McKinney-Vento helped create consistency for homeless students in the classroom. The law requires that public schools enroll homeless students quickly, even if they have no permanent address, and that districts pay to transport them to the school while they are homeless, no matter where they move. The law allows students to maintain the same teachers and peers.