Student homelessness is a growing challenge in our community. Over 3,000 children and youth in Snohomish County experienced homelessness during the 2019-2020 school year. This staggering figure grows every year as the cost of housing continues to increase and wages remain stagnant, especially for low-income families. Housing Hope is pioneering an innovative solution to build affordable housing specifically dedicated to these families so that children and youth can succeed in school and parents can get back on their feet.
Student homelessness is extremely difficult to solve because it lies at the intersection of two federal systems that do not typically work together: the Department of Education and the Department of Housing and Urban Development. These agencies have two different definitions of “homelessness,” which makes it nearly impossible for families to access services.
The Department of Education and local schools use a definition of homelessness found in the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, which states that a student is considered homeless if they lack: “a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence.” The Department of Education recognizes that children and youth who live in a motel/hotel or who are “doubled up/couch-surfing” with family or friends due to economic necessity are experiencing homelessness and in need of affordable housing.
However, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which is charged with creating housing for those experiencing homelessness, has a much narrower definition. According to HUD, a family is only homeless if they are living in a place not meant for human habitation (a car, tent, or on the street) or are in emergency shelter/transitional housing. The HUD definition of homelessness specifically excludes families who are doubled up or who live in a motel/hotel because they cannot find other housing.
This difference in definition makes it incredibly hard for students experiencing homelessness to access affordable housing. According to data from Everett Public Schools, 67% of homeless students are doubled up and 14% are temporarily living in a hotel or motel, while only 9% of students are living in places not meant for human habitation and 10% are living in shelters. *This means that less than 20% of students experiencing homelessness qualify for affordable housing through HUD.*
Our affordable housing system is not set up to solve this crisis.
EVERETT PUBLIC SCHOOLS DATA
of homeless students
are doubled up
are temporarily living
in a hotel or motel.
of students are living in places not meant for human habitation.
OUT OF +3,000 STUDENTS EXPERIENCING HOMELESSNESS IN SNOHOMISH COUNTY ONLY 20% QUALIFY FOR AFFORDABLE HOUSING THROUGH HUD.
Housing Hope agrees with the Department of Education that students who are doubled up or living in a motel are experiencing homelessness and deserve permanent, affordable housing. A study by Schoolhouse Washington found that students who are doubled up or in motels/hotels have nearly identical academic outcomes to their unsheltered peers, which are well below their housed classmates. The data is clear—couch surfing or being doubled up with friends or family negatively affects students’ academic performance, making them less likely to graduate high school and potentially limiting their future career choices. *In order to be successful in school, all students need stable, permanent housing that is affordable for their parents.*
The Washington State Legislature took action in 2018 to make it legal for school districts to lease surplus land for the purpose of building affordable housing for students experiencing homelessness. The Legislature took action again in 2020 to remove a technical barrier to these leases, further affirming that this is a legitimate use of public land because it provides a public benefit of enhancing student achievement.
Because the School District retains ownership of the land and serving students experiencing homelessness is a condition of these lease, Snohomish County Human Services Department has agreed to grant Housing Hope an exception to the normal HUD processes and serve families who meet the Department of Education/McKinney Vento definition of homelessness rather than the HUD definition. This allows these families to access permanent, affordable housing for the first time.
Housing Hope and our partner School Districts are breaking new ground to serve these families. To the best of our knowledge, we are the first community in the state—possibly even the nation—to attempt to build affordable housing for homeless students on surplus school district property. We believe that once this model is proven successful, it can be replicated in other communities as an innovative solution to solving student homelessness.