When most people think of homelessness, they picture scenes of cardboard shanties and dilapidated tents strung out beneath highway overpasses in places like Seattle. But this stereotype is a far cry from the reality in rural areas and small towns like Eatonville.

"Around 80 percent of students identified as homeless do not meet the typical idea of what we view as homeless,” Anisa Parks, a middle school social worker, said. “Most of them are 'doubled up,' which means living with friends or relatives, sleeping on friends’ couches or parking their camper on someone's property.”

Parks serves as McKinney Vento and Foster Care Liaison for the Eatonville School District.

Only 20 percent of the roughly 75 homeless students in the district spend their nights in vehicles, abandoned buildings or other forms of impermanent or substandard housing.

At the Oct. 24 Eatonville School Board meeting, Parks laid out the effect this has on the quality of the students’ education. Lack of attendance – both in school and extracurricular activities – arriving to class hungry and disheveled, and general psychological trauma were some of the points she highlighted. This in turn leads to lower proficiency and test scores and increased disciplinary problems, as shown in recently-released data.

Thanks to a federal program, called the McKinney-Vento Act, the school district has some outside support in addressing these issues. It also has considerable legal responsibilities and only limited funding to carry them out.

“It’s frustrating,” Parks said. “Because as a school, we can’t control our students’ housing situation. We can only work to reduce barriers to their education.”

The law requires school districts to address the following five needs for homeless students:

  • Identification of those eligible to receive benefits
  • Immediate enrollment
  • Free breakfast and lunch
  • Transportation to and from school
  • Referrals to other services.

Of these, transportation often proves the most difficult, Parks said, since the district is required to ensure students residing within its jurisdiction can arrive at the school they were last registered at, with no formal limits on travel time or distance. In some cases, this means transporting students from Eatonville to as far away as Fife or in one extreme case, Aberdeen. Where other modes of transportation are not available, this can mean paying for a taxi ride – both ways.

“Identification is the first step in intervention,” Parks explained to school board members.  “Only by knowing who they are can we try to assist them.”

The school district is currently on the third year of its first three year federal grant, and intends to reapply for the upcoming year in the hopes of being able to hire a part time liaison for the high school.

“High school is really our last opportunity to get these kids the help they need,” which for some includes making the transition to a four-year college, Parks added.

“Otherwise, the cycle just repeats.”