Student homelessness programs are off to a busy start

By Oliver Lazenby

Blaine School District’s Family Service Center provides low-income and homeless students with a variety of supplies and services to relieve the stress of not having what they need.

Rows of backpacks, jackets, and stacks of spiral notebooks, colored markers, scissors and other school supplies add a burst of color to one corner of the center’s office behind the middle school.

“I think most of us remember coming to school on the first day with a new backpack and new school supplies. Well, some of these kids don’t have anything,” said Jessie Burton, family coordinator and homeless liaison at the center. “They’re literally coming to school with nothing.”

The number of kids using the center’s services is on the rise. The number of homeless students – as defined by the McKinney-Vento Act –went from 82 in 2008-2009 to 42 in 2012-2013. That number is cumulative and grows throughout the school year.

The McKinney-Vento Act is a federal law that provides federal funding for programs that help homeless students, which it defines as students who are living in emergency or transitional centers, awaiting foster care placement, doubled up with other families for economic reasons, living in motels, campgrounds cars, parks and in other “substandard housing.”

Last year, 51 students experienced a housing crisis at some point during the year. So far this year, the number of homeless students under the act’s definition is already at 21.

“It’s a leap already,” Burton said. “But then again, you could look at it the other way – maybe more people are aware that the Family Service Center is here. I think it’s a combination of both.”

Whatcom Homeless Service Center’s annual homeless census found a similar trend. The count of homeless individuals decreased from 851 to 493 between 2008 and 2012. In 2016, the number was back up to 719.

The yearly count’s definition of homeless doesn’t include people who are doubled up, as the school district’s does, and its authors caution that it is just a snapshot that doesn’t capture everyone and may miss seasonal changes.

Transportation challenges

The hardest service to provide for students who don’t have stable housing is transportation, Burton said.

The McKinney-Vento Act requires school district to provide transportation to and from a homeless students “school of origin” – the school they last attended.

If a Blaine student moves to transitional or temporary housing in Bellingham, for example, they can still go to school in Blaine. School districts split transportation costs; one district will take the student to school and the other picks them up.

homelessstudents-infographic-3Carl Wagelie, district transportation supervisor, is in charge of sorting out the logistics. He has coordinated transportation for kids as afar away as South Bellingham and the Mount Baker School District – a 45-minute drive that drivers typically make in the district’s Honda Civic or Chevrolet Suburban.

“We find out the address and then find them transportation. Sometimes that can last for two days, other times it can last most of the school year,” Wagelie said.

And it can change with less than 24 hours notice. Coordinating that transportation is difficult because different districts often have different start and end times, not to mention the other variables Wagelie deals with, such as constantly changing sports and field trip schedules and a general shortage of bus drivers.

A few years ago, a fourth grader moved 12 times during the school year – bouncing from place to place, wherever the parent could find, Burton said. For students like that, the McKinney-Vento Act and associated funding helps anchor a chaotic life.

“Because they still had school stability, they at least knew that day they were coming to school and would see the same friends and the same teacher,” she said. “That stability is where I think this becomes super important.”

Running on donations

While transporting students with unstable housing is funded by grants, much of what the Family Service Center provides comes entirely from donations.

“If we ran out of donations we wouldn’t have anything. All the school supplies, all the hygiene items, ASB fees, P.E. clothes would be gone if we didn’t get donations,” Burton said. “Blaine is amazing and donates quite a bit.”

Right now, however, the center’s budget is low, Burton said.


District bus drivers, Sandi Brant, l., and Debbie Violet next to one of the vehicles used to transport homeless students. Photo by Oliver Lazenby.

Monetary donations, which are tax deductible, help the center fund everything from school supplies and clothes to household supplies, all of which relate to the center’s mission to reduce non-academic barriers to learning.

“We’re trying to relieve the stress of not having a home for the six hours they’re here so they can focus,” Burton said. “The awesome thing is that most kids are not missing school because they’re homeless. They’re at school and engaged because they know people here care about them.”

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