Homeless students on the rise in Washington schools

In this 2011 file photo, a volunteer checks a freeway overpass in the annual overnight count of homeless people living in Federal Way. - Mirror file photo
In this 2011 file photo, a volunteer checks a freeway overpass in the annual overnight count of homeless people living in Federal Way.
— image credit: Mirror file photo

The Washington State Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) released some startling numbers earlier this week regarding students and homelessness.

According to OSPI, 27,930 students were reported as homeless for the 2011-12 school year. That marks a 5.4 percent increase from 2010-11, and a 46.7 percent increase from 2007-08.

School districts keep records of their homeless students because of a federal law known as the McKinney-Vento Act.

According to OSPI, districts have cited a number of different reasons for this increase, such as the struggling job market, increased housing costs and foreclosures.

In Washington state, some industry towns like Everett or Shelton saw major employers close their doors. This has a disproportionate effect on the local economy and job market, according to OSPI.

In Federal Way, school district transportation director Cindy Wendland is tasked with tracking homeless students. According to her numbers, Federal Way Public Schools (FWPS) is currently serving 208 homeless students, but has served a total of 230 so far for the 2012-13 school year.

For 2011-12, there were 273 homeless students served, while 2010-11 saw 333 homeless students served by FWPS.

"We need to keep in mind that these are very fluid numbers," said  Debra Stenberg, FWPS Community Relations Coordinator. "Families and students come and go in our schools and district throughout the year, for reasons we don't always know. Some find housing or move to a different shelter, or simply choose to enroll their student closer to wherever they are now living."

Both OSPI and Stenberg pointed out that the definition of homeless under the McKinney-Vento Act is somewhat broad. Students who fall under the classification may not necessarily be in a situation that people would think of as being "traditionally" homeless.

The McKinney-Vento Act defines a homeless student as anyone who lives in emergency or transitional shelters; motels, hotels, trailer parks or camping grounds; shared housing due to loss of housing or economic hardship; hospitals secondary to abandonment or awaiting foster care placement; cars, parks, public spaces, abandoned buildings, substandard housing or similar situations; or public or private places not ordinarily used as sleeping accommodations for human beings.

“A variety of living arrangements fall into the homeless classification,” Stenberg noted. “Of the 208 we currently serve, the majority of those children, around 57 percent, are living with extended families or friends, about 25 percent are in shelters, and another 13 percent are living in hotels.”

According to OSPI, Washington state receives approximately $950,000 a year from the federal government to help homeless students. The money is given to districts in the form of competitive grants, with the money going to "districts with the greatest need." That money can be used toward a variety of programs and initiatives, including defraying costs of transportation, tutoring, instruction and so on.

Learn more

To learn more about the McKinney-Vento Homeless Education Assistance Act, visit


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