For homeless students, food and housing comes before studies

By WNPA Olympia Bureau
High school years. For students, it’s a time to prepare for college, a transition period to becoming an adult.
However, for some students in Washington, it’s a time fraught with rapid change when they must grow and learn to survive on their own during those high school years.
Often these students are hungry. It’s uncertain where they will sleep each night. They are classified as unaccompanied youth. Essentially, they’re homeless.
Unaccompanied youth are those ages 12 to 24 — defined by law and social services — who live on their own in unstable situations without a legal guardian.
According to a 2016 report by the state Department of Commerce, there were nearly 13,000 homeless unaccompanied youth in Washington.  Data from the office of the state superintendent of public instruction (OSPI) revealed that 3,412 K-12 students were unaccompanied during the 2015-2016 school year.
In south Pierce County, 520 students in the Bethel School District and 36 in the Eatonville district during 2015-16, according to OSPI.
Homeless students are defined by the federal McKinney-Vento Act as those who lack a stable nighttime residence. Under this law, students are guaranteed the right to remain in a school district, even if they move outside of the district boundary. Districts must provide transportation for homeless students and enroll students in school even if they don’t have the necessary paperwork or a regular address to call home.
Being a minor — under 18 — without a parent or guardian can be limiting to a youth.
Currently a person must be 18 or older to consent to releasing personal information to the Homeless Management Information System (HMIS), which tracks information about people experiencing homelessness. Proposed state legislation would change that. House Bill 1630, introduced this year, would give unaccompanied minors the ability to consent to have their personal information collected for the HMIS.
An amendment passed by the Senate committee on Mental Health and Housing requires youth to provide personally identifying information to service providers who receive public funding before receiving services.  
Kim Justice, the executive director of the state Department of Commerce’s Office of Homeless Youth, says that all counts of people experiencing homelessness are undercounts. The department oversees the state’s HMIS database.
HB 1630 passed the House on March 3, with 96 representatives in support, including Reps. J.T. Wilcox and Andrew Barkis of the Second Legislative District, which includes south Pierce County. The bill last week was awaiting a Senate vote.
Accessing healthcare can also be a problem for unaccompanied youth. Voted into law last year, the state’s Homeless Student Stability Act (HSSA) added a section to an existing law regarding minors and medical services. This permits homeless liaisons, school counselors, and school nurses to authorize health care services when a legal guardian is unavailable. Prior to the HSSA, youth under 18 couldn’t receive medical treatment without the consent of a legal guardian.
With HSSA, school districts with more than 10 unaccompanied youth must provide building liaisons in middle schools, junior schools, and high schools to identify unaccompanied youths and refer them to the homeless liaison.
The HSSA also provides funding to aid homeless students. Housing grant money was administered by the Department of Commerce, and OSPI supplied another grant to districts to identify and provide services to students experiencing homelessness.
School nurses, school counselors, or homeless-student liaisons are authorized to provide consent for healthcare for unaccompanied homeless students. Care in those cases can include non-emergency outpatient services, such as physical examinations, vision examinations and eyeglasses, dental examinations, hearing tests and hearing aids, immunizations, and outpatient treatment for mental health and substance abuse.

The Dispatch and Grace Swanson of the WNPA Olympia Bureau contributed  to this report, which is part of coverage of the Legislature through a reporting internship sponsored by the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association.


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