Since she was 6 years old, Caitlin Cheney has lived in a mishmash of places in Western Washington that includes motels, cars, and campgrounds. Yet she made it through her senior year of high school without being identified as homeless.
Cheney, now 22, didn’t confide in anyone because she was embarrassed and didn’t know what impact such a disclosure would have on her and her two sisters.
“I thought that we would be taken from my mom and in that situation we would be separated because I know that happens a lot, so I ended up not telling anybody,” she said.
In Washington, a state with a median household income in the top fourth of the nation, the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction reports that the number of homeless students in grades K-12 has soared in recent years — from 20,780 during the 2008-09 school year to 32,494 during the 2013-14 school year, a 56.3 percent spike. Roughly 7,000 of these students are unaccompanied youth, or children living without their families, but all of these figures are likely an undercount of the true number of homeless youth, state officials say.
To give homeless students the resources they need, last year Washington passed the Homeless Youth Prevention and Protection Act. The legislation required the creation of the Office of Homeless Youth Prevention and Protection Programs, which opened in November.
The office is doing the legwork to address homelessness in a strategic and coordinated way all over the state of Washington. With $10.96 million per fiscal year, it is expanding outreach to street youth, creating more shelter beds for them and transitional housing for young adults, among other efforts.
Executive Director Kim Justice said that the state’s commitment to homeless youth is unparalleled nationwide.
“Washington has made itself a leader in this realm because it recognized there’s an importance of having that state level focal point in addressing youth homelessness,” Justice said. “There are a few other states that have some similar efforts, but no state … has a state government office dedicated to addressing youth homelessness, and I think it’s what’s necessary in order to really be successful in these efforts.”
The Office of Homeless Youth Prevention has five goals: provide homeless youth with stable housing, healthy relationships with adults, education or employment, care for their emotional well-being and reconciliation with their families, when safe and appropriate.
Justice said that her office is taking a multifaceted approach because simply giving homeless youth a place to live won’t ensure that they transition into healthy adults.
It will, however, oversee teams of outreach workers tasked with walking the streets of areas where young people congregate and identifying those youth with no place to live. For years, Cheney could be found among them. Since the age of 15, she lived on her own after a rift with her mother, whom she characterized as mentally unstable and long unable to provide for her.
“I was still making it to school,” she said. “I camped around where my school was. Where I’m from, people don’t really look at you real terrible when you’re not living in a house or anything. Strangers wouldn’t pay me any mind.”
When high school graduation approached, Cheney finally revealed that she was homeless. Although she was graduating with honors, she planned to skip the ceremony because she couldn’t afford to pay for her cap and gown. Unaware of either her financial situation or her home life, school officials wanted to know why Cheney wasn’t going to walk during graduation.
One day, a woman approached her outside of class and identified herself as the McKinney-Vento homeless liaison for the Aberdeen School District. The McKinney-Vento Homeless Education Assistance Improvements Act of 2001 is a federal law that gives school districts funding to support youth without permanent housing. On and off the streets and other people’s couches since childhood, Cheney never knew that a liaison for students in her predicament existed.
Upon the discovery, her feelings shifted from surprise, to confusion, to relief.
“She told me she could help me out, and she wanted to know my story,” Cheney recalled of the liaison. “I was really clammed up in the beginning, but I ended up telling her most everything.”
A Hidden Epidemic
A new report – “Hidden in Plain Sight: Homeless Students in America’s Public Schools,” written by researchers at Civic Enterprises in partnership with Hart Research Associates – indicates that Cheney is hardly an anomaly.
Released June 13 by the GradNation Campaign, it found that 61 percent of homeless students surveyed were never connected to an outside organization for support, and 67 percent felt uncomfortable talking with people at their school about their housing situation.
Half of homeless students have slept in public places — cars, parks, abandoned building, bus stations — just as Cheney did.
For the report, Civic Enterprises surveyed 504 McKinney-Vento liaisons and 158 young adults who were formerly homeless. It also conducted in-depth interviews with currently homeless youth across the country. Erin Ingram, Civic Enterprises policy advisor and coauthor of the study, found the number of students who hadn’t received outside support surprising. She said that students might be more likely to self-report as homeless if schools outlined what will happen after they make the admission.
“If you report, here are the steps that would be taken,” she said. “Here are the people that would be notified. Here’s when we’re required to report to child services. That would’ve been helpful for students to know, depending on what they tell their counselors in school, when they would be required to go to the next level.”
Ingram said researchers found that few school staffers receive training on identifying homeless youth. If more personnel knew the signs to look for, more homeless students could get the support they need.
“We heard from a lot of coordinators that in many cases they’re the only person in their school who received training on what homelessness might look like and how the federal law requires that schools handle students who are homeless and how they support them,” Ingram said.
Eighty-seven percent of students who received outside support found it helpful. For example, the McKinney-Vento liaison in Cheney’s school district told her to apply for a college scholarship from the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth. Cheney became one of 15 students in 2012 to receive a scholarship from the organization. She’s now a zoology major at Washington State University.
Cheney said that she wouldn’t change her past if she could, because it has made her who she is today, but she questioned why her homelessness went undetected for so long.
“I do think there’s a misconception about homelessness and unaccompanied youth,” she said. “A lot of people I talk to aren’t aware there are different versions of homelessness. It ranges from couch surfing to sleeping on the streets to sleeping in campgrounds and sleeping in your car. You just don’t have the full resources you need.”
Do Federal Laws Go Far Enough?
The McKinney-Vento Act defines homelessness as “individuals who lack a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence,” including those who live in someone else’s home due to financial hardship.
Tired students and hungry students are often homeless, Cheney said, as are the ones who ask to shower in the school gym or don’t have access to the technology to complete homework assignments.
Justice said that teachers and school personnel in Washington have lacked the resources they need to effectively identify homeless youth. Washington does stand out, however, as one of just five states in the country that report the graduation rates of homeless students. Colorado, Kansas, Virginia and Wyoming are the others.
Of these five, Washington is the state with the widest disparity in graduation rates between homeless students and the general population. There, 46.1 percent of homeless youth graduate from high school on time, compared to 77.2 percent of their peers.
When the Every Student Succeeds Act goes into effect this fall, all states will be required to collect data on the high school graduation rates of such youth. The ESSA legislation will reinforce the McKinney-Vento Act, from which Washington receives $950,000 yearly in funding, but that’s not enough to improve outreach to homeless youth, Justice argued.
“We recognize that and the Legislature recognizes that,” she said. “This past legislative session, the Homeless Student Stability Act passed into law and what that does is create a partnership between schools and the Department of Commerce, which is to connect housing resources directly with schools to create more of the link between the school system and housing support.”
The state is appropriating $2 million to implement that program. Also, the Office of Homeless Youth Prevention is developing strategies specifically to help unaccompanied youth get stable housing. Much of the current outreach efforts focus on homeless families, but children exiting foster care and the juvenile justice system are at increased risk of becoming homeless adults.
Although Cheney was never in the system, her living situation remained unstable as recently as last year.
“Even in college, she lacked a place to stay for a while and was couch surfing,” said Barb Dexter, NAEHCY scholarship chairwoman and a McKinney-Vento liaison for the Anchorage School District. Seventy-eight percent of the youth surveyed in the “Hidden in Plain Sight” report experienced recurrent homelessness.
To help Cheney pay for the deposit needed to secure an apartment, NAEHCY loaned her money, which she promptly paid back upon receiving a financial aid award for college, Dexter said.
Including Youth in the Process
Homeless young adults ages 18 to 24 have largely been overlooked, according to Justice. But the Office of Homeless Youth Prevention plans to step up outreach to them and consider their perspective when outlining policy.
“We’ve identified a gap in the system,” she said. “We have services for youth under age 18, but we really don’t have state-supported services for young adults, and this additional funding will help us meet the needs of those young people.”
To identify more gaps as it develops a strategic plan to address homelessness, which will be presented to the Legislature and the governor in December, the Office of Homeless Youth Prevention will consult an advisory board. It is comprised of legislators, law enforcement officials, service providers, parent advocates and a formerly homeless youth affiliated with the Mockingbird Society, a Seattle nonprofit that advocates for youth in foster care or without housing.
“We have a core value to include youth voices in our work,” Justice said. “Young people who’ve experienced homelessness themselves really are the experts and have valuable ideas and input.”
Erin Hatheway, the Mockingbird Society’s public policy and communications coordinator, said that it’s important for lawmakers to hear a wide range of youth voices, so in addition to the representative on the advisory board, the organization has arranged for Justice and her staff to have regular contact with local homeless youth.
“We have active participation from 150 unique young people who’ve experienced homelessness in this region,” Hatheway said. “They are meeting quarterly to invite Kim and her staff to join them, and they will really be sort of another advisory group to inform Kim’s work, so they’re going to report to her what they’re thinking about, what issues are most important to their chapter and their peers and that will hopefully feed into her strategic process and the programs her office will implement.”
Cheney, for one, doesn’t want to see other homeless youth struggle in silence for years, as she did. Now that she has a better understanding of homelessness, she sees young people who fit into the category all the time, she said.
“I want to see more kids realize there are people out here to help you and that you’re not in it alone,” she said. “I’m pretty independent, but sometimes you really need to accept the help because you shouldn’t do this alone. You should realize there are other people out there like you. It really helps you move yourself forward.”
Nadra Nittle is a Los Angeles-based journalist. She has written for a number of media outlets, including the Los Angeles News Group, the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education and About.com.