Homelessness among youth in Spokane is 33 percent higher than the statewide average, according to a new study by two Eastern Washington University professors.
Additionally, the study identifies a gap in services for homeless youth, who often aren’t living on the street but bouncing from home to home, said lead author Tim Hilton, a social work professor who focuses on homelessness and poverty.
“As we did this, what we really found was that while we have a fairly robust shelter system, there is not a lot of prevention-oriented service,” Hilton said. “Because we have so many homeless we have to focus on the homeless rather than preventing people from becoming homeless.”
The study was funded by Priority Spokane, a nonprofit currently focused on preventing homelessness among youths,
Hilton said there are two different ways of categorizing homelessness. One relies on an annual point-in-time count. The second, which Hilton used in the study, includes families and youth that have moved out of their homes and are living with relatives, friends or acquaintances. The U.S. Department of Education uses this definition of homelessness.
Of the roughly 3,000 homeless children in Spokane County schools, 76 percent of them are “doubled up.”
Morgan Gabriel was homeless for 30 days when she was 17 years old. She continued to attend school throughout that time. Gabriel considers herself one of the “chosen few” because she didn’t have to live on the streets. Instead, she and her mother stayed at the Union Gospel Mission’s women and children shelter.
Gabriel said services often aren’t provided quickly enough for at-risk youth.
“The most annoying thing in Spokane is you have to be bleeding and dying to get help,” she said.
Gabriel, 22, works for Youth ’N Action, a support group for teens and young adults at risk for homelessness. Although she now lives in a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development-subsidized apartment, Gabriel still feels as if she’s not quite recovered from her experience in the shelter.
“It just feels like I have one foot in the door and one foot out,” she said.
Spokane County’s homeless student population has increased 58 percent in the last seven years, Hilton said. However, it’s hard to say what part of that increase is due to new homeless youth, and what part is due to improved identification and reporting procedures.
Lyndia Wilson, director of Spokane Regional Health District’s disease prevention and response division, said students who are forced to double up often end up in shelters. Additionally, doubled-up families don’t qualify for many federal funds, she said.
“It is certainly stressful to be physically homeless but it’s also stressful to be camping out in the living room of your mom’s best friend,” said Sally Pritchard, vice president of Spokane County United Way. “I think it’s a big problem for our community and then it’s reflected in things like lower graduation rates.”
The United Way, she said, focuses on preventive measures. The organization’s three main areas of focus are education, health and income.
“That is a big and a growing challenge in Spokane County,” Pritchard said.
Hilton said the services are in place to preemptively assist homeless youth countywide, but often the funding is insufficient. The report proposes a number of potential public and private funding sources.
Jessica Grady said she became homeless when she was 10 years old after her mom had a psychotic breakdown and her father started using drugs. She spent years bouncing from couch to couch in her home state of Florida. She didn’t go to middle school and missed much of high school. Although she was rarely out on the streets, she said the insecurity of living in a number of different homes affected her deeply.
Now, at age 22, she’s involved in Spokane’s homeless coalition and is caring for her 16-month-old son, who is terminally ill with a genetic bone marrow disorder.
She graduated from high school in Florida with a 3.9 GPA and is studying at the University of Idaho.
“The issues you get from being homeless as a child carry long, long into adulthood,” she said.