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Young -- and homeless

Outreach worker, Trevor Marhsall, of Friends of Youth, stands in front of one of the organization
Outreach worker, Trevor Marhsall, of Friends of Youth, stands in front of one of the organization's vans. The nonprofit tries to reach out to teens wherever they're located.
— image credit: Courtesy Photo

Imagine spending the night in your car with your parents and siblings; doing homework without a desk; or having your school peers ask why you’d worn the same shirt every day for the past week.

Spotlighting homelessness has long been an issue for the Eastside, says Terry Pottmeyer president of Friends of Youth, in part because of misconceptions that all Bellevue residents are wealthy. But this year the Bellevue school district reported 142 homeless students.

While that’s down from 185 last year, Betty Takahashi, the district’s homeless liaison, says that the number of homeless students in 2012 is nearly three times as many as when she first started in 2006. Statewide, the numbers are even more alarming: 27,000 homeless students.

“We’ve seen a 48 percent increase in the number of young people,” said Pottmeyer of the entire Eastside, “a staggering increase in two years.”

While those trends mirror other school districts, calculations are thought to be a gross under-estimate of the real issue. The problem is twofold — districts rely on students to self-report and youth, sometimes out of embarrassment, and sometimes because they think of homelessness as an “urban problem,” don’t identify.

Under the federal McKinney-Vento law, school districts are required to track the number of homeless students. They’re also obligated to provide them with the same academic opportunities as any of their peers.

“The kids are usually very emotional,” says Takahashi. “It’s a traumatic experience when you have to move for whatever reason...But [homeless] kids never know where they’re going to live.”

Homelessness is devastating for any age bracket, but the risks are even greater for youth. Statistics suggest that within 24 hours kids are likely to be approached for exploitation or prostitution. And each time they move, they lose about three months of instruction. For a family going through rough times, says Takahashi, a student can very quickly fall behind by an entire grade level.

The recession has of course, exacerbated rates. But because they lack independence or any financial means, it’s easier for youth to find themselves temporarily homeless. Pottmeyer remembers a 17 year-old who got in a fight at home and didn’t feel safe returning that evening. After camping out at the library for much of the day, he asked the librarian for help, who quickly connected him with a shelter and basic support until things could be resolved.

The causes are as varied as job loss, the scarcity of affordable housing on the Eastside, shorter hours at work or an unexpected medical expense. Kids also may choose to leave because of an unhealthy living situation.

“It’s not just people we think are low-income,” says Takahashi. “It affects traditionally middle-class families too.”

The most distinguishing factor between youth and adult homelessness might be its disproportionate impact on LGBTQ communities, adds Pottmeyer. Kids who come out to a disapproving family are often kicked out of their parents’ homes.

But while liaisons like Takahashi will go to great lengths to protect children’s confidentiality and make students feel as normal as possible — sometimes driving them to cheerleading practice, or checking in on siblings — they try not to lessen or modify school curriculums.

“Teachers may be more understanding or adapt assignments, while still holding the child to the same academic standard,” says Takahashi. “We want them to excel and have expectations for them because education is the key to their future.”

Takahashi keeps tabs on a wide web of support services. She regularly checks in at local shelters; calls families if she suspects a student may be homeless to make sure siblings are equally cared for; and ensures that homeless students are informed about schools’ free lunch programs. She’ll also work with students to provide backpacks, school supplies, transportation, and school changes where necessary. Takahashi says that she also has family connection centers at five of the district’s schools.

But while support is comprehensive it’s not always adequate. Last year she had a more extensive tutoring program. Fewer federal dollars have cleaved those resources.

It can be daunting, both admit, but even lifting just one family out of homelessness is an impressive feat, says Pottmeyer.

“There’s finally an awareness,” she observes. “In the last two years there’s this recognition that we do have homeless people [on the Eastside]…In the beginning it didn’t feel like much of a movement, but there’s been a lot of awareness. Churches and community groups are coming forward. It’s encouraging.”

For more information, try the following contacts:

You can reach Betty Takahashi, McKinney-Vento Liaison for the Bellevue School District at takahashib@bsd405.org or 425-456-4241.

National Safe Place is also a resource for young people, under 18 in crisis. NSF trains businesses, community places and organizations to respond with resources and help. Visit their website, here.

 

 

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