Learning suffers for lack of adequate food, shelter, care
By Marcy Stamper
Imagine sleeping in a travel trailer or going from one friend’s couch to another, and then trying to focus on math or biology. Two dozen homeless students in the Methow Valley School District are coping with unstable living situations and still trying to learn in school.
“There’s a lot of need in the Methow Valley that people don’t even know about. It’s shocking to me,” said Erika Spellman, homeless liaison for the school district.
Some homeless kids are with their families and all live together with a relative or friend. Some families live in uninsulated structures with no running water, said Kelleigh McMillan, mentorship/internship coordinator for the Independent Learning Center (ILC).
But many of these young people are unaccompanied, meaning they don’t live with a parent, adult family member or guardian, said Spellman. Unaccompanied youths may have left home and are now staying with a friend. Others live in their own home but are alone because a parent is in a treatment facility. Some choose to remain in the valley after their parents divorce and move away, said Spellman.
“A lot of unaccompanied youth have chosen to leave for reasons a person would want to leave. A lot are just trying to survive,” said Spellman. Once students have separated from their parents, they tend to stay separate, said McMillan.
Spellman currently has 24 families on her caseload, with students in all grades, from kindergarten through 12. There are quite a few unaccompanied youths, some as young as 14, she said.
Despite being the homeless liaison, Spellman said trying to find housing for a student is actually the last thing she does, because there’s so little affordable housing.
Instead, she concentrates on supporting students so they can be successful in school. That may include providing coats, gloves and boots; gift cards for food; or paying a utility bill or buying a cord of wood.
The reasons for homelessness are varied. When poverty cycles through generations, many circumstances become barriers to stable housing. A lack of affordable rentals, addiction and mental health issues all play roles in the overall functioning of any family system, said McMillan.
Sometimes the primary issue is not being able to afford housing, particularly after a relationship breaks up and the family can no longer manage with just one income, said Spellman. For many youths, unstable housing is connected with problems such as chemical dependency or mental health needs, said McMillan.
Once someone is on her caseload, it’s very rare for that person to no longer need help, said Spellman. Whatever the root cause, “it’s scary because it starts a downward spiral,” she said.
Some of these living situations are stable, but many change throughout the school year. Often, a family opens their home to an unaccompanied teen who’s a friend of their child. While in many ways this is a saving grace, it can create hardship because of the costs of raising a teenager, said McMillan.
Effects on learning
Any student experiencing homelessness will struggle academically because of a lack of stability at home, said Spellman. “Often students arrive at school hungry, cold, sad or withdrawn. Until those things are addressed through a meal, a connection with a counselor, and adequate clothing, we cannot begin to engage with their higher brain functions,” said McMillan.
While unstable living situations can lead to truancy for older kids, elementary students generally come to school, where it’s warm, there’s food, and they can play, said Spellman.
There are two funds to support homeless students. The district has about $700 in federal funds that can be used for school materials, tutoring and activity fees. The local Family Empowerment Fund, a program of Winthrop Kiwanis, covers needs including warm clothing and gift cards for food.
School programs including free and reduced breakfast and lunch and the Friday food bags, which provide supplementary food for the weekend, are available to all students.
Study: Data, help are scarce
Room One, the social-service agency in Twisp, recently commissioned a study to better understand the extent of youth homelessness across the county and to develop strategies to address the problem. Consultants looked at the situation for young people from 13 to 24.
The study and action plan grew out of a girl’s group Room One runs in the county’s juvenile-detention center, said Adrianne Moore, Room One’s associate director.
Many youths said that a primary barrier in their lives was a chronic lack of safe and stable housing, said Moore. Some were living with an abusive boyfriend or in a drug house. Other kids were living at the county fairgrounds and had to walk around all night to keep from falling asleep and freezing to death.
The group’s facilitators realized that they needed to address fundamental problems to help the youths to be successful in life, said Moore. They brought together service providers from across the county, including Okanogan County Community Action Council, school districts and tribal agencies and commissioned the study.
The study, the Proposed Okanogan County Youth Homelessness Action Plan, found that there’s a lot of work to do — there are few reliable tallies of homeless youth in the county, and even fewer resources for them. There are no emergency shelters or beds for youths under 18. There are limited resources in the emergency shelter system for young adults over 18.
The researchers found scant local data. The annual homeless count doesn’t provide data on age, said research consultant Courtney Noble.
School districts report the number of homeless students to the state, but details are hard to come by because the state doesn’t report numbers less than 10. School districts reported 305 homeless students across the county in 2017, 35 of them unaccompanied.
Many of the numbers in the research are extrapolated from a comprehensive national study called the Voices of Youth Count, said Noble. That count was based on 22 places across the country, both urban and rural. The methodology was found to provide a reliable indicator of the prevalence of homelessness, she said.
Based on that methodology, Noble and her co-researcher calculated that there would be 92 homeless minors in Okanogan County and 289 homeless young adults.
The Okanogan County Youth Homelessness Coalition is studying options to serve homeless youths, said Moore. That includes host homes that would keep kids in their communities, and mobile case managers to connect with youths where they congregate, she said.
The action plan recommends asking about housing status during intakes for mental-health services and juvenile detention. Other recommendations include having a single application process for all services and inquiring about LGBTQ status because that can put young people at greater risk for homelessness.
Key recommendations are for the county to provide safe and immediate emergency shelter to any unsheltered youth, and to build a network of transitional and supportive housing.
The study also recommends youth-specific services; not discharging youths from foster care, juvenile detention, or treatment services to a situation where they could become homeless; strengthening schools as the first point of contact; and supporting family reunification.