A record number of homeless students have passed through Spokane Public Schools so far this year.
Last year, 16 homeless students graduated from Spokane schools. Based on current numbers, school officials expect at least that many next spring.
In the first year of the district’s homeless program, six years ago, 340 students were served. This year the numbers are approaching 600.
“In many cases they don’t know where their parents are,” said Edie Sims, facilitator of the school district’s Homeless Education and Resource Team.
Many times, the desertions are caused by parental drug abuse, Sims said. In those situations students rarely return to their parents, she said.
A child is considered homeless by the school district if he or she lacks a fixed, regular nighttime residence.
Numbers of homeless children have been rising steadily for the past several years. Homeless students can be found in every high school, middle school and 29 of the district’s 35 elementary schools.
A combination of hurricane-impacted families (22 students total) and better training of office staff in identifying homeless students have pushed the numbers up this year, said district officials.
The number of students entering the district homeless program in the month of October nearly doubled, from 33 last year to 62 this year.
Among the current homeless, about 70 students are high school age, and about 35 of those high school students are without any kind of guardian.
Since the homeless program began, Sims said, about five students have gone from eighth grade through graduation without parents or guardians.
“I cry at those,” Sims said. “The schools are raising children.”
Of the 16 homeless students who graduated from high school last year, Sims said some are now in college. Some are working. Some have just vanished.
Many times they stay at different friends’ places, Sims said. Last year, her office intervened when a student was found sneaking a friend into his family’s garage.
“They don’t think they’re homeless,” Sims said. “The children do what I call couch surfing … We can help them.”
The goal of the program is stability, which is achieved by keeping students in their “home” school. At least their teachers, friends and school schedule will be the same despite home difficulties.
“Many of our children have witnessed domestic violence,” Sims said.
The program uses school buses and STA bus passes and as a last resort will pay for cab fare to keep a student in a familiar school. Students are paired up with a teacher or counselor, someone who knows their story and will listen to them, Sims said.
In the Homeless Education and Resource Team program, students get a pair of shoes, health and dental care, and transportation costs.
The district has a fund, which usually hovers around $1,800, to pay for clothing, birth certificates, school fees and Social Security cards. The account also funds purchase orders at Shopko and vouchers for the Salvation Army, especially for some students who are larger or smaller than average and can’t be served by the clothing bank at the YWCA.
The fund is down to $600, Sims said. “It’s taken a beating this year.”
Somehow, she said, the account manages to keep providing, thanks to a steady flow of contributions. She said it’s like the Old Testament passage about a jar of olive oil that never seems to go dry.
Despite 20 years as an educator, Sims said she still can’t tell which students with the toughest situations will find a way to make it through school.
“It’s just a kid who made up their mind,” Sims said. “Many of these children know by age 11 or 12 that education was a way out.”
Spokane Public Schools Superintendent Brian Benzel called Sims a “quiet hero” at a board meeting earlier this year.
Last year Sims and her staff organized a private dinner for the students they serve. A Rotary Club purchased yearbooks for the homeless graduates. She plans to turn to the organization again this year.