As a child, Sarah C. stayed in hotels with her mom.
In high school, she couch-hopped, rotating between reliable friends.
“Sometimes it would be hard to stay [in school] because I’d be trying to figure out what I was doing afterwards,” she said, referring to planning rides from school and then a place to sleep at night.
Sarah C., who wishes not to reveal her last name, was homeless throughout her childhood. She attended Decatur High School for most of her high school career but graduated from Tukwila’s Foster High School with good grades in June 2015.
Few students who have been homeless are that fortunate.
According to the U.S. Department of Education, homeless students have a greater risk of dropping out of school. Whether it’s getting a ride to and from school or wondering where their next meal will come from, homeless students face challenges students with homes don’t.
“If the feeling you have while in class is hunger and worrying about where you’re going to sleep the next night, that is going to be your primary focus and you’re not going to be focusing on reading or math to the level of other scholars who have stability, who go home,” Federal Way Public Schools Superintendent Tammy Campbell said. “Those are just two totally different things to think about.”
Those same issues nationwide are reflected among a segment of Federal Way students.
Federal Way Public Schools recently announced the number of homeless students in the district has risen by 46.5 percent over five years. In the 2016-17 school year, the district reported 491 homeless students. In the 2013-12 school year, the count was 335.
“You see more and more people leaving the Seattle area because they can’t afford housing, so they’re moving south and that, unfortunately, brings them here,” Campbell said. “And even what we think of as low income housing, some of our families cannot afford that.”
Students like Sarah C. are often left to pick up the pieces of situations out of their control.
“Employment was hard for my mom because she has a record,” Sarah C. said. “She’s a felon, a single mom to me and my sister, so that was kind of hard for her to make enough money and afford a place.”
Although her mom eventually received Section 8 housing in 2012, Sarah C. said she was in and out of the house because of her mom’s meth addiction.
“It was hard to be around her,” she said, adding that she’d help take care of her sister by making her food.
Now, Sarah C. manages a few Subways in South King County while living with her sister and mom, who’s in recovery for her addiction. She helps pay the bills and feeds her sister, but the young woman still has lasting effects from her rough childhood. Those take the form of depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder.
“It was very stressful,” she said. “I actually have triggers from being in different hotels – it brings me back to it and causes me to have anxiety, and when I’m trying to get away from my mom, it just reminds me.”
Sarah C. had a counselor who regularly came to her school, but she never felt comfortable talking to teachers about her problems until she met Laurie Beaver, a career and technical education teacher at Decatur High School.
“She was my career choice teacher, and I felt like I could talk to her about that situation,” Sarah C. said, adding that she didn’t trust speaking about that with others because she had been in foster care before. “I didn’t want anything to escalate to that.”
Beaver said she’s come across many homeless students in her classroom who each face unique challenges and barriers.
“I had two young ladies who, I knew one of them was probably, for lack of a better word, prostituting herself out to get money,” Beaver said. “Some of these kids, if they had a car, were sleeping in a car, some of them were continually jumping from couch to couch, when it was convenient to them.”
Finding shelter can be especially hard for older teenagers because they’re too young to go into homeless shelters but too old to be considered a child in need, Beaver said.
Getting children to admit they’re homeless is a challenge in itself.
Whether it’s a different perspective in what makes someone homeless – couch surfing versus sleeping on the street – or shame and embarrassment, Beaver said many homeless youth have trouble speaking out.
“They don’t want people feeling sorry for them,” she said. “They just want to be like every other teenager – go home after school, be part of an activity, to know where their next meal is coming from, clean clothes and where to take a shower.”
Federal Way Public Schools does have programs to help homeless families and children.
Throughout Federal Way Public Schools, district officials employ family liaisons at every elementary school and partner with Communities In Schools to provide school outreach coordinators at middle and high schools.
Individual schools also try to help.
Decatur High School has hosted clothing drives for the Multi-Service Center, an organization that provides food, hygienic items, clothing and more to those experiencing homelessness for quite some time.
And, this Friday, the school’s leadership team will host a Bingo Night fundraiser from 6-8:30 p.m. to raise money to bring a food pantry to Decatur, the only high school in the district without one. The event is $5 per entry and will take place at Decatur High School.
As well, the Bridging a Gap program provides students with backpacks full of food on scheduled breaks and weekends to supplement the free-and-reduced breakfast and lunches some students receive at school.
“We’re expanding that program through a partnership with Rotary and some of our local churches at more schools,” Campbell said, noting that they’ve donated almost $60,000 to the cause. “I’m having conversations right now about how we might systematize it and probably have a vehicle that goes to schools and leaves food, supplies, things that our families and scholars need. That’s in the works right now.”
The school district also helps students get to school, a federal mandate under the McKinney-Vento Act, which outlines the rights for homeless students, including that they can stay in their school/district of origin.
In 2016-17, the district spent more than $500,000 taking students from their temporary homes to school and back again.
“We have a lot of our scholars getting taxis, and taxis are very expensive,” Campbell said. “We have a bus driver shortage right now. We’re actually looking at reworking our bus schedules next year so we can utilize the bus drivers that we have and I think that will allow us to transport more of our homeless scholars and not rely on taxis because that’s what’s creating part of the expense.”
As school board members and officials appeal to the state for more transportation funding, the Multi-Service Center is doing what it can with $100,000 received last year from the nonprofit, Building Changes. The money went toward their first year of a three-year pilot project called the YES program, or Youth Employment and Education Services.
Multi-Service Center Employment and Education Director Amanda Santo said homeless youth between 12 and 24 years old are eligible for the program. Once enrolled, they will receive individualized plans to achieve future goals, whether it’s receiving an education or gaining employment.
“It’s really about what the young person’s interests or goals are, to help provide connections to that,” Santo said, noting resources for legal help, housing, family reunification or crises are also available through the program.
The program’s case manager usually has about 30-35 young people in her caseload and regularly checks in with them to make sure they’re on track to reach their goals. Approximately 25 percent of all youth at intake identify as homeless, but Santo expects it’s closer to 30 percent.
“I definitely think since I’ve been a director since 2012, our young people who identify as homeless at intake has dramatically increased,” Santo said. “It has nearly doubled.”
Despite current services, Beaver and others said the real problem is Federal Way has no place for homeless youth to go at night.
“You have to be older,” she said. “There’s churches for men and women but no place for kids to go. Absolutely no place.”
Beaver thinks the city should have redirected funds for capital projects, such as the Performing Arts and Event Center and remodeled Town Square Park, to address the need.
“One of my dreams is to open such a place for these kids with all the support we could give, whether it be reuniting families, counseling, addiction issues, tutoring, etc.,” she said. “My big fear also is the increase in abductions and the slave trade.”
Back in January, Steve McNey, senior adviser to Mayor Jim Ferrell, said the city would be seeking state capital funds for a youth homeless facility similar to Auburn’s Nexus Youth and Families. That facility offers an overnight center with mental health and substance abuse counseling services for homeless youth. However, the city hasn’t received anything from the state yet.
“As you know, the Legislature is having a protracted budget ‘discussion,’ ” McNey said about the Washington State Legislature. “… This is something that we will continue to work toward, even if no funds are received this year.”
Sylvia Fuerstenberg, the executive director at Nexus Youth and Families, said Federal Way’s mayor, City Council and city planners requested Nexus create an operations budget proposal for a possible Federal Way shelter and drop-in center.
But that was a few months ago, she said.
“We’d very much like to be serving Federal Way, but we don’t currently have a contract with them,” Fuerstenberg said. “There are really no other South King County providers doing this work.”
Fuerstenberg said Nexus’ proposal was limited but included a drop-in day program for five hours a day, 365 days a year of service with two staff members for $108,000 a year. The night program would include a six-bed shelter for young adults and would cost about $145,000 a year for a total of $253,000 a year.
The caveat? The city would have to come up with a location and building in addition to the operating costs.
Nexus Youth and Families currently offers 15 programs in the homeless services department, according to Michelle Hankinson, the director of homeless services for Nexus. That includes a drop-in center for youth ages 12-24 and a 12-bed shelter for 18-24 year olds.
“We’ve been full for the last couple of months,” Hankinson said of the shelter, which has about 15-30 children each night looking for a place to sleep.
The organization had previously offered South King County’s only under-18 shelter until 2013, when it lost federal funding, something that would have affected Federal Way youth relying on the shelter.