The number of homeless students in Bellingham is rising.
During the 2015-16 school year, 559 students in the Bellingham School District qualified as homeless. This is an increase from the 471 of the previous school year, according to the State of Washington office of Superintendent of Public Instruction.
“I’m not sure if the broader community is aware of just how many kids we are talking about. In Bellingham there are 3,700 kids who are living in some level of poverty,” Superintendent of Bellingham Public Schools Greg Baker said.
A student is defined as homeless if they are without fixed, regular or adequate housing, according to the federal McKinney-Vento Act.
“I was at the point of just thinking of sleeping in classrooms or even camping out in the woods.”
The trend of growing homelessness among students was felt throughout the state of Washington. During the 2015-16 year there were almost 40,000 homeless students, a number which was released by the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction. This is an overall increase of 12 percent from last year.
One of the biggest issues is the lack of affordable housing available in Bellingham, Baker said.
“Not only do we have growing numbers, but in Bellingham we have the additional challenge of rising house prices,” Baker said. “ Families [are] being forced out of their homes because they can’t afford to live in the city.”
Nolan Johnson is the supervisor of the Drop-In Center at The Lighthouse Mission in Bellingham, an organization which provides services for the homeless. Rising housing costs and decreasing availability is a major barrier for families struggling to escape homelessness, Johnson said.
The limited housing available within the city can result in many struggling families lacking a consistent place to stay, Johnson said.
“We have a lot of resources at the bottom level where people are able to get things like food. Or places like the Lighthouse, which can provide a warm place to sleep,” Johnson said. “The gap between getting from homeless to getting a house is so hard because it takes so long. The wait for housing is now around three years,” he said.
Western students also have had trouble finding housing in time for school.
Western alumna Katie Haffner, who was homeless for part of 2015 while attending classes, ran into this obstacle.
“It was that I couldn’t find any available housing at all,” Haffner said.
Students without stable housing are forced to bring more than homework in their backpacks to school.
“Students already have enough stuff they have to carry with them to class,” Johnson said. “Try to do that but also carry your whole life. Try to fit your whole room, your apartment, your kitchen, everything into a backpack.”
Not knowing where they are going to sleep at night can also hurt a student’s ability to focus on learning, Baker said.
Haffner found finding places to sleep a stressful part of her day.
“I was at the point of just thinking of sleeping in classrooms or even camping out in the woods,” Haffner said.
To combat difficulties like this, Bellingham School District offers services to support the academic success of students. For example, transportation for students deemed homeless under federal law is provided so they can continue attending their regular school.
Sarah Simpson is one of two homeless support coordinators who help the school district identify and support students who qualify as homeless. Recognizing students with high needs is something that contributes to the growing number of homeless, Simpson said.
“I think homelessness is increasing, but I also think we are getting much better at identifying it,” Simpson said. “We have better systems of identifying who the students are and that’s a huge reason why the numbers are increasing.”
The population of homeless students throughout Bellingham remains a significant challenge for the district, Baker said.