Seattle—and all of Washington State—has long been on the forefront when it comes to supporting homeless students and working to end family homelessness. This is due, in large part, to both the Mayor’s office and Seattle Public Schools’ ready acknowledgement that housing instability impacts an increasing number of Seattle’s families. In fact, in late 2015, the city declared a state of emergency on family homelessness, allowing for the expansion of services and funding to assist this growing population.
That same year, we released the first Atlas of Student Homelessness in New York City. At ICPH, we believe that education provides the best chance for children to break the cycle of poverty and homelessness. That’s why understanding the educational challenges that students experiencing homelessness face, and the opportunities that exist to help them succeed, is crucial. Providing a clear picture of where homeless students go to school and how their educational outcomes differ from those of housed students allows for better identification of policy levers that might benefit this particularly vulnerable group of children. It was also apparent that this type of analysis and reporting would benefit any school district, not just those in New York City.
We were thrilled, then, when the City of Seattle approached us about a partnership to develop the first Seattle Atlas of Student Homelessness. As the Atlas shows, 97% of Seattle public schools have at least one homeless student enrolled, with homelessness increasing in every neighborhood, save one, in the past four years.
What does this mean? Family homelessness is so pervasive that every school, neighborhood, community, and individual in Seattle must accept that someone in their world is experiencing housing instability. While it’s vital that we work on solutions to the affordable-housing crisis and other factors that exacerbate homelessness, it’s equally important that we provide appropriate and immediate supports to children during and after their experiences with homelessness. This requires schools, teachers, parents, community non-profits, and city administrators to recognize the specific, unique challenges of homeless students as outlined in the Seattle Atlas of Student Homelessness: more than a third of homeless students in Seattle missed at least 18 days of instruction, 40% of homeless students received the lowest possible score on state achievement tests, and homeless students were disciplined at twice the rate of housed students.
If there were a simple solution to end homelessness or to achieve equitable educational outcomes, we wouldn’t still be doing this work. What we’ve learned from Seattle, from New York, and from other cities and states across the United States is that this is nuanced, complicated work. Local context is key to identifying effective solutions—we hope that Seattle will come together to explore this data, talk about what it means in their everyday lives, and create new approaches that work for Seattle’s families.
Liz Cohen, Chief of Staff