The shack shook and swayed as gusts of wind reached 30 miles an hour.
It was 4 p.m. on a recent Friday, and getting dark. Laura Comfort sat in the particle-board security shack at Nickelsville, waiting for her 10-year-old son, Thayon, to return from school. She looked up at the clock hanging on the wall and sighed. It was getting colder, and she still had another two hours on her shift.
When Thayon arrived, wrapped in a heavy, green parka and carrying a backpack and a large grocery bag, he dropped his things and ran across the gravel lot to a portable toilet. Comfort opened up his bags, quickly setting aside the food he received from a program that feeds school-aged children over the weekend.
She was looking for an empty folder that would indicate that Thayon had turned in all his assignments.
“Cool, cool,” she muttered, flipping through a Thanksgiving-themed essay assignment and a note from the teacher about a field trip to see Pacific Northwest Ballet perform The Nutcracker. Then she opened up the folder and smiled.
“Turned in all his work. Good boy.”
Comfort, Thayon and his brother, Caydon, 4, have been homeless since April.
The research on homeless kids is not lost on Comfort. She knows that studies show that they score six percentile points lower than their housed peers in reading and math, largely due to the constant moving and poor class attendance. And she’s heard that, according to the U.S. Department of Education, half of homeless students do not meet their state’s test score standards.
Comfort is determined to see that her children aren’t statistics.
Thayon, now in the fourth grade, must make it to graduation, “And if he doesn’t start putting a lot of emphasis on his work right now, he’s going to be seen as a lost cause.”
She tells her sons that they owe it to her to complete their education: “A high school diploma. That’s the price for being born.”
The Comforts are among hundreds of King County families living in shelters, cars and encampments while struggling to keep the kids in school. More than 3,000 families in King County are waiting for emergency housing, according to the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness. More than 200 are living like the Comforts: in a place not fit for human habitation. Hundreds more are doubled up with friends and family or living in the few shelter beds available to families with children.
Every family seeking housing is in the same long line, organized by Family Housing Connection. This is known as coordinated entry. It is also an extended state of limbo. It will take months to get into supportive housing, such as an apartment overseen by a case manager. It could be years before the family is back in a market-rate rental home.
Alyson Moon, family services director for Mary’s Place, said service providers work to ensure that children are not stigmatized when they experience homelessness.
“You hope that it’s just a minute for them, a point in their lives so it doesn’t come to define them,” she said.
School-age children are increasingly likely to experience housing instability. In Seattle and around the nation, the number of homeless students in public schools has been rising for years. In 2007, Seattle Public Schools knew of 930 homeless students; now there are an estimated 1,800.
Statewide, the number of homeless students is also on the rise. In 2007, Washington state estimated there were more than 18,000 homeless students. In 2012, the number grew to more than 27,000.
Educators attribute part of this increase to schools becoming more aware of homelessness, which means more children are counted as homeless, said Dinah Ladd, a program manager at Seattle Public Schools who works with homeless students and their families.
“The good thing is people are getting aware,” Ladd said. “The bad thing is we can’t deal with them all.”
Ladd estimates that she talks to 15 to 20 families a day who need help with enrollment and transportation, but she often doesn’t know if she’ll see a family again, as they move frequently.
The Seattle School District has two full-time staff members at its district office dedicated to assisting homeless families, a population that is changing all the time.
“We never know where these families are going to be or whether they’re going to come back,” Ladd said.
Many homeless parents and children who have been unable to find shelter or housing elsewhere end up at the Nickelsville tent encampment on Jackson Street. The day Comfort waited inside the security booth there, children accounted for 11 of the 21 people living at the camp.
A family or two shows up at the Nickelsville on Jackson Street every day looking for help, said Sola Plumacher of the Seattle Human Services Department.
For parents, finding housing is a full-time job, and that makes it particularly challenging for them to also support the education of their children, said Beth Shinn, a Vanderbilt University professor who studies academic achievement among homeless students.
“Mobility is not so good for kids,” Shinn said. Being homeless means being constantly in motion, she said.
Kids who move around a lot suffer from stress, which makes it difficult to follow directions and avoid distractions in the classroom.
“They’re dealing with more than the average student because of their housing situation,” said Ladd, of Seattle Public Schools.
Comfort and her boys have been moving around since April, when Comfort lost her pizza delivery job and their Bremerton home and came to Seattle looking for a better opportunity. Since then, the family has done two stints at Nickelsville and spent four months at a YWCA emergency shelter.
Consistency in another aspect of life that can be an antidote to homelessness, said Marty Hartman, executive director of Mary’s Place, which sets aside time at its drop-in center every afternoon for kids to do homework with tutors.
If housing is unstable, organizations like Mary’s Place endeavor to create a “constant, stable nighttime structure and a place to belong,” Hartman said. “A place to be loved and cared about makes all the difference in the world.”
Comfort tries to build her own consistency at Nickelsville. When Thayon arrived home on a recent Friday afternoon, Comfort urged him to walk four blocks to the Douglass-Truth Library, where he could use a computer while she finished up a security shift for the encampment.
“It’ll just be warm, is all I’m saying,” she said to a reluctant Thayon.
After dinner, Comfort and her sons piled into a small tent to do homework by the glow of a battery-powered lantern, and then read ghost stories they checked out from the library.
The McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act has helped create consistency for students in the classroom. The federal law requires that public schools admit homeless students without paperwork, and pays to transport students from wherever they move while they are homeless to their original school, so they can maintain the same teachers and peers.
Every weekday morning, taxicabs line up outside of Mary’s Place to pick up 40 students. Since Nickelsville established its family encampment on Jackson Street, taxis, town cars and buses have come to pick up the school-aged children there.
McKinney-Vento enabled Thayon to stay at John Hay Elementary School despite moving between shelters and Nickelsville several times. The act allows students to keep the same teacher and classmates, even if they can’t keep the same roof over their head.
“I love his teacher,” Comfort said. “She’s one of those teachers you can tell cares genuinely about her students.”
When Comfort gets a job and the family moves into an apartment, the McKinney-Vento Act will make it possible for Thayon to continue to stay at John Hay, so he can keep his education stable.
Then, their weeks at Nickelsville will have been but one chapter in their lives.
“Homelessness is a stage that families pass through,” said Shinn, of Vanderbilt University. “It’s not a trait.”