Britain Webb has been homeless twice while attending University High School. Domestic violence forced the 17-year-old’s mother and siblings out of their Spokane Valley apartment the first time, Webb said. The second time, their house burned down.
Through all his turmoil, school has been a constant. “Going to school is a very big part of life in general,” Webb said. “That’s how you get through it. … Being at school was pretty much the highlight of my day.”
A federally mandated program for homeless students kept Webb in the same school while his family moved among motels and the homes of relatives. The teen is representative of a growing number of homeless students identified in Inland Northwest school districts in recent counts.
Although figures have been steadily climbing in recent years, school officials say this increase is the biggest they’ve seen since the economic crisis began.
Spokane Public Schools and the East Valley, West Valley, Central Valley and Mead school districts showed an increase ranging from 32 percent to 55 percent compared with this time last year. Coeur d’Alene School District officials say homeless student numbers are up there, too, but they did not have exact figures.
“We have seen an increase in families where both parents have lost their jobs and then have had to face foreclosure on their homes,” said Kelly Patterson, Mead’s homeless liaison. “Some low-income families who have been able to get by in the past are no longer able to meet their monthly expenses and have fallen into homelessness.”
Another reason for the higher numbers could be better tracking, as homeless liaisons make more of an effort to let families know there’s help in the school districts.
“In addition to the bad times, I think people are also becoming more aware that we (homeless liaisons) are here,” Spokane district liaison Sarah Miller said.
A federal mandate, the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, requires that every district designate a liaison to identify and work with homeless students – an effort known in Spokane as Homeless Education and Resource Team, or HEART.
The law also mandates transportation for students whose situations force them to move away from their school or out of the district. As Webb’s family moved around, the school district provided him with an STA bus pass.
“The HEART program is pretty much how I was able to stay at U-High,” Webb said. “Having that stability was important to me.”
The federal definition of homeless is broad: “An individual living in a place they have no legal right to occupy, in an emergency shelter, or in a temporary housing program which may include a friend’s home, or transitional and supportive housing program if habitation time limits exist.”
Doubling up, or living with family or friends, is the most common arrangement, school officials say.
School officials saw signs of a worsening problem this past summer. “Families started calling at the beginning of August wanting to know what help the district could offer, looking for school supplies,” Patterson said. “There’s just more need out there.”
Miller added, “There are people who are about to lose their homes, and they are calling us for help. In the past, you might hear from people like this every once in a while, but now the calls are almost every day.”
Liaisons also are seeing more students with no roof over their heads because Spokane-area shelters and housing available to homeless families, such as Salvation Army and SNAP programs, are full.
Instances of students living with their families in cars or camping are rare, Miller said. But this year, she is hearing more stories about families having nowhere to go. “People are just hoping they don’t get kicked out of the parking lots where they are parked.”
Jennifer Martin, SNAP homeless program coordinator, said demand for the agency’s 13 emergency shelter apartments has increased dramatically.
When a unit opens up every 90 days, so many people line up at SNAP’s East Central Neighborhood offices that a lottery system now is used to choose which family gets it.
“The first person in line literally had their hand on the doorknob,” Martin said.