Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Success in school starts at home

May 05, 2016

Anyone can be an advocate. As an attorney who works with families and students experiencing homelessness, I am fortunate to partner with advocates from every possible professional background and walk of life, each dedicated to ensuring homeless children and families have access to safe, stable housing, with as little educational disruption as possible. 

Two years ago I received a phone call from one of these advocates who described herself as:

  • a former Microsoft employee,                                                                                
  • a domestic violence survivor,
  • a mom of three.

After two years of rotating between friends’ houses, shelters and motels; trying to find a job, and a stable place to stay so that her three daughters (ages, 3, 5 and 13) could stay in their own school district, Ada Andersen was exhausted. 

Ada was desperate to maintain the consistency and familiarity that school provided for her daughters – a place of normalcy in childhoods turned upside down. On that day two years ago, what brought us together was Ada’s concern that her children’s school district would not transport one of her daughter’s between school and child care. Without transportation, Ada faced a decision between continuing her search for jobs and housing or losing her child care support.

I could provide some relief for Ada in resolving her transportation issue with the school district. But when it came down to the multitude of barriers and the different systems she learned to navigate to receive the basic support she needed, it felt insurmountable.  Even after receiving a Housing Choice Voucher it took Ada an additional nine months to find permanent housing. 

 Families with children make up nearly half of Washington’s homeless population.

Unfortunately, Ada’s experience is not uncommon. Families with children make up nearly half of Washington’s homeless population, as many families scramble to find stable housing because of the lack of affordable housing in our communities.

On April 1, 2016, Washington took an important first step towards supporting homeless school aged children and their families.  Governor Inslee signed into law HB 1682, the Homeless Student Stability and Opportunity Gap Act, an important policy that will provide grants to schools to identify and serve more homeless students. HB 1682 also provides grants to school-housing partnerships that will link homeless students and their families with stable housing in the student’s own school district.

The bill was inspired by the success of the McCarver Project, a partnership between the Tacoma Housing Authority and the Tacoma School District that provides rental assistance to families on the verge of homelessness who have children attending McCarver Elementary School in Tacoma. (Learn more about the McCarver Project from the Urban Institute.)

 If we can spend a housing dollar to not only house families but also to help their children succeed in school, it is a very good use of a housing dollar.

In a rare special signing, Governor Inslee personally went to McCarver Elementary School to sign HB-1682 into law (watch video). The lunchroom at McCarver was crowded with advocates. On the program, Michael Mirra from the Tacoma Housing Authority introduced the bill saying, “If we can spend a housing dollar to not only house families but also to help their children succeed in school, it is a very good use of a housing dollar.”

Mirra next introduced Ramona Millspaugh, who participates in the McCarver Project. Thanks to the school-housing partnership rent assistance, Ramona can raise her grandchildren in one home. She explained that the assistance means even more to her: it helped her gain the confidence to take parenting classes and join the McCarver PTA. Bill sponsors Representative Jake Fey (D-25) and Melanie Stambaugh (D-27) then rose to praise the community effort that brought HB-1682 into existence. Jamal, a youth ambassador at Denny Middle School in Seattle who previously testified in support of the bill shared, “Although I'm only in seventh grade, I know what [homelessness is] like and it's really hard, because of all of the stress and challenges that young people have to go through."  

Following Jamal, Governor Inslee announced, “Homework is tough, but it’s even harder when you don’t have a home.”

The applause was loud and prolonged.

The Homeless Student Stability and Opportunity Gap Act would not have happened without people like Ada, Jamal, dedicated homeless liaisons, innovative ideas like McCarver, and community advocates who believed aligning the worlds of education and housing was a necessary step in supporting Washington’s 35,000 homeless students and their families.

Over time, we hope that more school districts, housing authorities, cities and states can come together to make sure every student and parent has the springboard to success provided by a safe and stable place to live.

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