On a recent weekend, Destiny, 17, spent an unusually sunny spring day canoeing near her temporary home in Western Washington. Technically homeless, Destiny has been staying with her grandmother. She went to sleep that night on the living room couch with a slight ache in her throat.
She woke with a start the next morning, drenched in sweat, with a fever over 100, her throat nearly completely closed.
Lacking a car to get to a nearby clinic, her grandmother dialed 911 for an ambulance. Paramedics quickly arrived, wearing face masks and shields and full-body hazmat suits.
“They were talking so loud because they couldn’t hear themselves,” Destiny said. “They came in, grabbed me and took me out to the fire truck. They kept telling me everything was OK, but I was in tears. I was so scared.”
At the hospital, nurses interrogated her: Where had she last traveled, who did she see in person recently, any signs of a cough? “When I didn’t give them the info they were looking for, they just stuck the swabs up my nose,” Destiny said.
She had to wait two days for the test results. The discovery that she might have Covid-19 capped an already exhausting month, one in which Destiny broke up with her boyfriend, moved out of his family’s home and lost the only constant in her life — school. Now, she had to somehow quarantine in a one-bedroom apartment with her grandmother, who rarely missed a chance to ask Destiny where she would live next, and her brother.
“Everything was really good until recently. I’ll survive. It’s just actually really hard.”Destiny, homeless student, Granite Falls High School
“I’m on edge all day long,” said Destiny, whose last name is being withheld because she’s a minor in a vulnerable position. “Everything was really good until recently. I’ll survive. It’s just actually really hard.”
Across the U.S., the coronavirus pandemic has thrown the already rocky lives of homeless students like Destiny into chaos with the closure of schools, community centers, libraries and even shelters.
Federal law requires school districts to assign someone to keep track of youth experiencing homelessness and to make sure they have what they need to focus on learning. That job, which often comes with a nonspecific title like “homeless education liaison,” just got a lot harder. The feds offer school districts some funding, but as of 2018 it amounted to just about $50 per homeless student, which educators say is not nearly enough. With scant resources from state and federal governments, homeless liaisons, school counselors and social workers are patching together hasty practical solutions for the country’s approximately 1.5 million homeless students. Yet even as nonprofit groups and philanthropic foundations rush to shore up emergency aid for the most vulnerable youth, many advocates worry about a looming surge in homelessness due to the economic fallout of the pandemic.
“The next wave of homelessness is coming. It’s going to be bigger and, I think, a little more out of control,” said Kim Rinehardt, executive director of Mason County H.O.S.T., a program similar to foster care, which places homeless youth with host families in rural Western Washington.
Since 2008, the number of homeless students in Washington has nearly doubled, reaching more than 40,000 last school year, according to the state superintendent’s office. About 3,000 of these children have nowhere to sleep each night, and just over 6,400 can’t rely on a parent or guardian for help. The increase in Washington is mirrored nationally: Since 2010, public schools have reported double-digit growth in students experiencing homelessness, federal education data shows. And some of the most staggering increases have concentrated in the West, particularly in Idaho, Montana, Nevada and Wyoming.
“The next wave of homelessness is coming. It’s going to be bigger and, I think, a little more out of control,”Kim Rinehardt, executive director, Mason County H.O.S.T.
The increase, like the nation’s overall homelessness crisis, has largely been fueled by a severe shortage of affordable housing. In Washington, that’s particularly true in communities outside the booming Puget Sound region, where working and low-income families have sought cheaper rents.
“Housing’s not easy to find, simple as that, and that’s when we’re not in the middle of a pandemic,” said Kim Welling, a homeless liaison for the Burlington-Edison School District, which identified 163 students, about 4 percent of the student body, who lacked stable housing this academic year.
About an hour north of Seattle, Burlington-Edison lies within Skagit County, where real estate researchers with the University of Washington found just seven vacant apartment units this spring — tying the county with three others for the tightest rental market in the state. Many families there don’t earn enough to secure an apartment lease, Welling said, or they can’t pull together first and last month’s rent on top of security deposits and application fees. The Housing Authority of Skagit County currently has a waitlist of two to three years for subsidized housing, a spokesperson for the agency said.
“We’ve got families that will live in (weekly) motels for years,” Welling said. “A lot of them are just scraping by.”
For many homeless students, school was often the only place they went every day, greeted the same adults and received warm meals. For them, school closures have been especially devastating.
“School was my outlet,” Destiny said of Granite Falls High, nestled in the western foothills of the Cascade Mountains. “It’s just a really small, loving community. Everyone goes above and beyond to help.”
In a makeshift office-slash-storage closet on campus, Destiny could fill her backpack with food, toiletries and hygiene products — free to the two dozen homeless students enrolled at the high school. She also met regularly with a counselor who stretched her part-time schedule to help about 220 homeless students across the Granite Falls School District.
“I could tell her everything,” Destiny said. “It was so easy to talk to her. She’d share life experiences, techniques to cope.”
Like Destiny, three in four homeless students in Washington live doubled-up, also known as “couch-surfing,” with friends or relatives. It’s a precarious arrangement that depends on the generosity of their hosts; a helping hand that some have withdrawn as stay-at-home orders prevent guests from leaving for the day for school or work.
Rising tensions at her boyfriend’s house eventually convinced Destiny it was time to go. The bickering started small, with the expected fights between Destiny, her boyfriend and his siblings.
“It started to get really intense because all of us were around each other all the time,” Destiny said. “It was a lot of emotional tension.”
One day, Destiny left the home to visit with her brother — breaking the quarantine rules set at her boyfriend’s home. The mother, concerned, called Destiny. But the conversation ended when the mother asked if Destiny had been drinking or taking drugs.
“I just don’t do that,” Destiny said. “I don’t want anything to do with drugs.”
The sting of the accusation sent Destiny packing. She moved into her grandmother’s cramped apartment, but she has not escaped tension there. Arguments with her grandmother often end with the suggestion that Destiny return to her own mother, an option Destiny described as unsafe.
With nearby youth shelters closed or locked down, Destiny wondered where she might go next.
Regardless of their nightly residence, youth experiencing homelessness face multiple hurdles that existed long before the novel coronavirus. The sudden reality, however, of a pandemic that requires regular hygiene, strict social distancing and no school has made their lives incalculably harder: How do they access the free meals they used to get at school if they live miles away and have no transportation? How do they, especially the girls, stay safe on mostly empty streets? How do they access emergency shelter when many youth homes are shuttered to prevent potential new coronavirus infections? And how, when both getting a device and finding internet are yet one more challenge, are they supposed to succeed at distance learning?
In Burlington, some 30 miles north of where Destiny in staying, Heather Matyas struggled to ensure her kids had access to online schooling. Matyas often resorted to walking her three daughters, ages 6, 7 and 13, from an abandoned auto shop, where they were staying in a dusty storage space on the second floor, to a nearby fast-food restaurant to submit homework online.
“We find different places,” Matyas said. “McDonald’s usually has Wi-Fi in the parking lot. Denny’s. The hospital. Walking takes up a good portion of our day, especially with little kids who don’t want to walk.”
The family’s struggles started years before, in 2016, when the children’s father died. Matyas, who is on disability, started working odd jobs to provide her kids stable housing. That worked for a time, but this January, an electrical outlet started a fire in the towable camper they had been calling home.
“It’s just been falling from one level of losing resources to another,” said Matyas. “If I get a stable job, where can I get child care? There’s no low-income housing available. I’ve been on (the waitlist) for years. What rays of hope do you have?”
One: After calling as many apartment complexes as she could find, Matyas finally landed a place she could afford a few cities away. They’ve just moved in.
Building Changes, a Seattle-based nonprofit that works to reduce youth and family homelessness in Washington, posed a question in early April to homeless liaisons working in schools throughout the state: What do your families need right now? The survey revealed five top needs: Food, internet access, mobile devices, basic hygiene supplies and rental assistance.
“No one had a chance to prepare,” said Mehret Tekle-Awarun, senior manager of education strategy for Building Changes. “Certain (homeless) liaisons, out of the goodness of their hearts, took it upon themselves.”
With the meager support they get from the state and “the other Washington,” homeless liaisons have found simple, yet invaluable, solutions. In rural counties, they have crowdsourced lists of where homeless families live to coordinate food deliveries across district lines. The Granite Falls liaison, who oversees the district in which Destiny is enrolled, created a schedule for when students could shower at school, and set times when a school worker would safely meet homeless families at a laundromat to wash their clothes for free. In neighboring Skagit County, Welling partnered with a local homeless agency to start a drive-through resource for families to pick up food, diapers, disinfecting wipes and more.
“There’s no playbook. There’s no precedent. People with emergency backgrounds have some framework (but) this is like a hurricane every day.”Barbara Duffield, executive director, SchoolHouse Connection
But advocates worry whether these patchwork fixes will be sustainable, and whether they will be enough. And keeping in regular contact with homeless families can be next to impossible, since they often move without notice or have a cell phone but no cell service, said Barbara Duffield, executive director with the Washington, D.C.-based SchoolHouse Connection.
With little direction from state and federal governments on how to help homeless kids, Duffield’s nonprofit has been hosting biweekly webinars where homeless liaisons can brainstorm, learn from each other and vent.
“There’s no playbook. There’s no precedent,” Duffield said. “People with emergency backgrounds have some framework (but) this is like a hurricane every day.”
The discussion among advocates often lands on frustration with their inability to spend federal dollars meant to help homeless students on housing or motel vouchers. Those restrictions, in part, convinced Building Changes and the Seattle-based Raikes Foundation to launch a Covid-19 emergency fund, specifically to cover financial assistance for housing, food and basic needs.
As of mid-May, Building Changes and Raikes had raised nearly $1.3 million, mostly from other philanthropic groups, and distributed just over $1 million to schools, religious groups and nonprofits. A little more than a third of the awards paid for housing assistance, with basic needs and technology making up another third. In a state where 6 in 10 homeless students identify as students of color, Building Changes and Raikes have prioritized requests for funding that specifically target communities disproportionately impacted by homelessness, said Paula Carvalho, Raikes’ program officer for youth homelessness.
Black and indigenous youth are a priority, said Carvalho, “and also our immigrant and refugee populations. They probably won’t see a dime of the federal relief money.”
The federal CARES Act, passed by Congress in late March, provided $13.5 billion for schools. But the only portion of that money that might aid homeless children is part of a larger pot of funding also intended to help districts serve other low-income kids, students with disabilities, English learners, racial and ethnic minorities and youth in the foster care system. (In the U.S. House, a trio of representatives — two Democrats and one Republican — have circulated a letter urging their party leaders to earmark at least $2.8 billion in any future relief package specifically to help homeless youth and their families.)
“They’re not explicitly called out,” Carvalho said of homeless students in the CARES Act, they’re “just included with other vulnerable populations. But when you don’t call them out, they become afterthoughts.”
When advocates are able to catch their breath from dealing with problems that need immediate attention and look to the future, some fear the next year or more will be even more dire. Families will face staggering rental bills once temporary eviction bans expire and landlords collect on late rents. Homeless teens who graduate high school will enter perhaps the worst job market in modern history. And as the nation’s recession grows deeper, the years-long waitlist for subsidized housing likely will grow even longer.
The promise of such a bleak future has prompted Rinehardt, with the Mason County H.O.S.T. home program, to ask private funders, “How much money are you raising to support what’s coming?”
With one more year before her planned graduation, Destiny has already questioned her own future.
She planned to get a summer job, save for her first car and claim a taste of independence. Then, she would join the National Guard and eventually use veteran’s benefits to attend Washington State University.
“I really wanted to be a teacher, a kindergarten teacher,” Destiny said. “I love kids so much, and any way that I can help them would be great. (But) it’s going to be hard if this virus sticks around for a while, so I don’t know.”
Less than a month into her school’s experiment with virtual classes, Destiny had all but given up. A flood of Zoom invites and emails about new assignments overwhelmed her, and no adult she’s been sheltering with has been able to help. Her counselor tried to intervene, asking teachers to lower Destiny’s workload. But it didn’t make enough of a difference.
“Honestly, I haven’t even bothered. It’s too much,” Destiny said.
Her frustration with distance learning, coupled with a tip from a friend, convinced Destiny to transfer to Crossroads High, an alternative school that trains staff to help students impacted by trauma. She plans to do that in the fall. Destiny also looks forward to another big change: Since her grandmother plans to move out soon, a friend of Destiny’s brother hopes to take over the lease and offer Destiny and her brother a more permanent home.
“Things might get less stressful,” she said, focusing on the positives. She also has her brother. (“He’s like my favorite person ever.”) And she has her health: When Destiny finally got her test results, it turned out she’d had strep throat, not Covid-19.
The whirlwind of the past two months also taught Destiny that many people have it worse. She almost cried, thinking of how many students live without stable housing across Washington and the many more expected to be in her situation next year.
“A lot of people think that we’ve done something wrong to deserve this,” Destiny said. “And that’s not fair. That’s not right. We’re not all troubled or mean. We’re not lazy.”
But if nothing is done now to help Destiny and students like her, their chances of finding a way out of homelessness will grow even more unlikely.
This story about homeless youth was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.