“How do you deal with these children coming in with such highly traumatic home lives?”
20%. The problems behind Lowell Elementary’s disproportionate enrollment of homeless students are larger than just one school. The Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction shows 3,498 students as homeless in the district.
“That is not an SPS problem, that is a foundational problem,” Seattle Public Schools (SPS) spokesperson Kim Schmanke said. “A lot of the things we’re doing would be supportive of homeless students but are not solely targeted because we are not a social or counseling center for students.”
The district’s resources are stretched too thin.
Take it from Nick Hodges, the co-president of the Parent-Teacher Association at Lowell Elementary who just recently recovered from homelessness along with his wife and two kids who attend Lowell.
“The biggest problem has always been the structure of getting help in our school,” Hodges said. “How do you deal with these children coming in with such highly traumatic home lives? How can you bring them into a situation that’s going to be stable for them six to seven hours in a day, and make them feel comfortable and safe with the proper resources and send them back to a shelter secure and feeling better about themselves?”
Though he’s been through it, even he finds it hard to come up with catch-all solutions.
Hodges became homeless because of a medical issue. The moment his family lost their housing, Hodges’ wife worked day in and day out on an endless list of applications. This included Section 8 vouchers for King County, Seattle and Kent. It included the Seattle Housing Authority, and Snohomish and Pierce County. She began working at the Department of Social and Health Services part time. Then, five months in, South Lake Union made a new building and the Hodges family number got randomly called out of a lottery for housing.
“It’s not necessarily that her hard work paid off, even though she was going to work every day until it did,” Hodges said. “It was just luck.”
“It took them a long time to realize this is really ours. We’re not going anywhere, this is where we live now.”
Even though they’re moved in and no longer using a Section 8 voucher — and they’re paying the full price of rent now — Hodges’ kids have been slow to transition. When the kids saw they had to use a card to get into the building, for security, they thought they were living in a hotel. They automatically asked how long they would be staying.
“It took them a long time to realize this is really ours,” Hodges said. “We’re not going anywhere, this is where we live now.”
While they were homeless, everyday conversations became difficult. When friends asked if they could come over, his kids would typically lie and say they weren’t allowed to have friends over nor could they stay with friends. The reality was that if any of the kids were absent, the entire Hodges family would lose their place at the homeless shelter. There wasn’t room for young guests either.
Not only did Hodges’ kids give vague answers about where they lived, Hodges found himself doing the same. There are stigmas, even in the aftermath, that he and his children don’t want to face.
“It just feels,” Hodges paused, “dirty, in a way. It also makes me feel shameful because it’s like, even though now everything’s good, at one point I was homeless and even though that happened to me because of a medical issue, I feel like I failed my kids. That is really devastating to me and when I think about it, it’s hurtful and I don’t want to think about why I live where I live [in affordable housing] and what happened for me to get there.”
For his kids at Lowell, though, they don’t miss out on extracurriculars. Hodges felt like recent coverage by KUOW was a “double-edged sword” because some of it brought light to Lowell Elementary but now a lot of people view it as an underfunded school.
Lowell specifically has $4,768,062 allocated to it, which rivals elementary schools like West Seattle. Most other elementary schools allocated budgets fall within the $3 million range. Lowell has one levy-funded family social worker, and (for SPS employees) a full time counselor and a school psychologist.
The only monetary discrepancy Hodges can point to lies within the PTA . Lowell’s was almost slashed before Hodges came along. Other school’s PTAs tend to provide more funding than Lowell’s can, according to Hodges.
“[Student homelessness] can’t just be a school building or district role to resolve,” said SPS’ Schmanke. “It’s a community and social and socio-economic issue.”
While Hodges sees a lot of programs at Lowell, the school is still lacking lunch, recess and behavioral aides.
“Does that affect student behavior, rub off onto students? Yes,” Hodges said. “Teachers aren’t getting mandatory breaks, which can lead to extra stress for teachers having to watch kids at lunch and recess, or office administration and staff has to take time out of their lunch.”
He also stated Lowell gets a lot of absent teachers, and filled substitute spots tend to turn empty. Hodges attributed this to SPS giving substitutes “first choice,” which means they can refuse placements at specific schools once they’ve been substituting for a certain number of years.
When substitutes don’t show up, teachers are forced to split classes.
“I believe our staff and our teachers are doing the best that they can with what they’re given,” Hodges said, “and they want these kids to succeed but it’s hard, and sometimes they feel like their hands are tied.”
Hodges wants to see everyone succeed, but feels like District 5 needs to take a look at the situation and analyze what’s happening at each school. He suggested shifting around programs as they best fit the needs and demographics of each school.
“There’s a lot of turnover in our school, kids come and go a lot,” Hodges said of Lowell. “There was a lot of fluctuation last year with our homeless population. It started around 18% and got all the way up to around 45%. You have to deal with whatever is sent your way, it’s not the school’s choice.”
The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act does not allow people outside of school staff know precisely who the homeless students are.
Schmanke feels Lowell has to adapt for a larger homeless student population with the new addition of Mary’s Place, a nonprofit organization focusing and housing women and families. Amazon recently provided Mary’s Place a building to occupy and it’s located in the Lowell boundaries.
Homeless students can, however, remain at a school they already attended. Homeless students do not have to attend Lowell.
Homeless students who identify or are qualified for McKinney-Vento funds can get more help. McKinney-Vento is a federal act giving categorical funds to states for homeless shelter programs. Part of these funds are given to schools’ homeless student services, which include health services, extra academic support and transportation. The McKinney-Vento Act requires schools enroll homeless students without delay. The federal law also protects those students from barriers, like immunization papers.
McKinney-Vento was given just over $1 billion during its 1987 implementation, but only $782 million was appropriated. Support for the program has declined since 1995 when homeless plans were consolidated.
But a federal program under the Department of Health & Human Services released a report last year showing only a handful of Washington (as in the entire state, not just Seattle) homeless children accessed services in 2017. A whopping 92% didn’t get help. The study only examined federal services, however, which include the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, Head Start, and Early Head Start.
The federal government gives “a smaller dollar amount,” Schmanke said, to help school districts provide supportive services. For 2017, federal funds accounted for only 6.7% of SPS’s budget.
“We have nine nurses, I think, for 53,000 students. So we do rely greatly on support from partners.”
But SPS does have some partnerships with other community organizations, mental health services and health providers. Schmanke cited the number being around 300.
“Nurses are not a basic education item according to the state of Washington,” Schmanke said. “We have nine nurses, I think, for 53,000 students. So we do rely greatly on support from partners.”
Alison Eisinger with Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness (SKCCH) explained SPS has skilled professionals like nurses and counselors, but they’re split among the schools and there’s not enough of them.
“They usually have a few hours here and a few hours there,” Eisinger said.
SPS ultimately has to help all students with trauma and cannot legally focus on specifically homeless students. Thus, SPS doesn’t offer homeless-specific training for teachers, counselors or nurses.
“There’s a lot of children out there who have trauma not related to homelessness,” Schmanke said. “The story also painted that it’s homeless children who act out and everyone else is angelic.”
Multiple kids from varying backgrounds act out in class, not just or always homeless students.
Eisinger said she found it disturbing that there’s an apparent acknowledgement homeless students need additional resources but aren’t getting them. Either way, homeless students aren’t the only ones impacted.
“Lots of children who are poor are not homeless and they’re also at Lowell,” Eisinger said. “Lots of kids who have experienced trauma are homeless, too, but not all.”
So, if hands are tied in SPS bureaucracy how can people help? Or, even, where can teachers and staff go for outside assistance specific to homelessness?
People can take a look at SKCCH’s guide covering what resources are available for the community when they have questions about McKinney-Vento or homeless students.
The Mockingbird Society, an advocacy organization for foster care, often overlaps with homelessness. They provide community training to partners and those who ask through Stories of Youth Homelessness. It’s a two-hour, youth-led training that answers why young people become homeless, how they survive the experience, and how people can help. The trainings are customized to meet the specific needs of each audience and are taught by young people who have experienced homelessness first-hand.
PTAs tend to have a donation page and a list of need-to-fill volunteer hours — Lowell’s PTA has this as well. Meanwhile, businesses large and small are also stepping forward to help:
“It sounds cliche, but if you need to volunteer there’s a way you can,” Hodges said. “But, honestly, money is the best way. Our PTA can’t do the things others do because of the money they get.”
You can also give to the PTA online here.