by Kayla Blau
There is never a dull moment at our homeless shelter and transitional housing program. Mothers dot our waiting room, oftentimes on hour-long holds with DSHS or their pro-bono lawyer. Kids zip down the hallway and swing from our dated play structure. New families arrive with nothing but the clothes on their back and empty stomachs full of hope for change. Mothers are weighed down with endless to-do lists: find a new job, enroll kids in school, get school clothes and supplies, find food banks and health clinics, secure housing vouchers, go to court for parenting plans and restraining orders, the list seemingly never ends. They often note it’s a full-time job just to get the support they need while experiencing homelessness. They keep going, despite their own depression or PTSD, and model what it means to have hope for their children, again and again. The residual stress and crises reverberates through the building, and despite parent’s best efforts to shield their children from it, kids living in transition are deeply impacted by instability.
We know homelessness in Seattle is an issue – Seattle Mayor Ed Murray even declared a “State of Emergency” on homelessness. However, the estimated 4,000 kids experiencing homeless in King County alone are rarely acknowledged. I work with about 70 of these rays of light as a Children’s Advocate at a homeless shelter and transitional housing program for moms and kids escaping domestic violence. Every day I spend with the kids exposes how paramount the lasting impact homelessness has on young people, and I am continuously appalled at how overlooked it is.
Homelessness and displacement happen for a variety of reasons, including Seattle’s rising rents, job loss, mental health, domestic violence, etc. Not knowing if you’ll have a safe place to sleep or where your next meal is coming from is stressful for adults, let alone for children that are trying to make sense of their experience in the midst of chaos. Pulled from the familiarity of their house, belongings, friends, support system, and community, young people are often left to navigate their trauma within systems that aren’t equipped to meet their needs.
While there is a national law called the McKinney-Vento Act in place to “support the rights of homeless students,” it is so poorly funded that most schools are unaware of the program’s existence. It is supposed to safeguard a child’s right to continue education at their school of origin, provide transportation for them, school supplies, free lunch, and waived fees for class field trips and extra-curriculars. Oftentimes when I call a school to inquire about the program, they are unsure who to direct me to. Every school district is supposed to have a Family Support Liaison to provide support to homeless students, but due to budget cuts this role is often tacked onto the duties of the secretary, part-time counselor, or administrative assistant. Many are unaware of the intricacies of homelessness; I worked with one child whom was banned from enrolling in school without a birth certificate (her mom had left it at home when she fled her abusive husband), which is illegal under McKinney-Vento. These gaps of awareness interfere with children’s access to consistent education.
When a family becomes homeless, there are very limited options of shelters and transitional housing programs have extremely long waiting lists, causing a gap in housing that disrupts a child’s education. If the family gets into a shelter program outside of their community, it can take up to a week to set up transportation to and from school. Moms have to make the difficult decision of uprooting their child by switching to a school closer to their temporary living situation, or continuing to send their child to their school of origin, which sometimes means two hour bus rides for kids each way. Since most shelters are only 30-day programs, families live in a constant state of uncertainty and instability, an anxiety that follows kids into the classroom and disrupts their learning and behavior.
Children who have experienced complex trauma often have difficulty processing and managing their emotions, and internalize a “flight or fight” mentality to navigate their unstable world. In the classroom, this shows up through becoming frustrated with small tasks and giving up, or through not having the skills to mediate conflict with classmates, for example. Childhood trauma is often misinterpreted as bad behavior, and many kids experiencing homelessness are stigmatized and punitively punished as “problem kids.” Instead of receiving support, kids are blamed for their trauma and not given the skills to self-regulate.
“I mean, 15 out of the 27 students in my class are homeless. Most of them don’t stay the whole year – it becomes a transient classroom. Amidst all the laughter and learning, there is a severe tension of not being able to meet the needs of fifteen traumatized kids in the school day,” laments a local second grade teacher. The tension is felt by the students, as well.
“We had one kid in my class, and he just up and disappeared one day. We didn’t even get to say goodbye. It makes me sad when it happens like that,” a 7-year-old I work with shared.
When a child is behind in school or has social/emotional issues, they are assigned an Individual Education Plan (IEP) designed to support their academic success. This may include one-on-one attention, special education classrooms, or accommodations for learning styles. When a child switches schools, their IEP is supposed to follow them and be regularly assessed for progress, but if the student is homeless schools often delay support, anticipating the student is only there temporarily. Children are not provided the support their IEP requires; between changing schools, a severe lack of trauma-informed care, and understaffed special education departments, kids with IEPs often fall through the cracks. And when you move around enough, those cracks become wider and wider.
Take Interagency Academy, for example. It’s a Seattle Public Schools a network of alternative high schools for at-risk youth. In 2015 alone, 6 students at Interagency were murdered or committed suicide. The deaths were barely reported on, reinforcing the sentiment that if you’re homeless, especially if you’re nonwhite, your life is not valuable. All six of the students that passed away were under 20 years old, and all of them had a history of homelessness and complex trauma. Where were the cracks? What could have we done?
It is no surprise that homelessness causes extreme stress and trauma. But, since our society seemingly only cares about issues if they’re backed up by numbers, a California doctor conducted an evidence-based Adverse Childhood Experiences Study (ACES), which reveals staggering proof of the health, social, and economic risks that result from childhood trauma. The ACES represent household dysfunction (growing up in a home with substance abuse, a single parent, mental illness, domestic violence, or criminal behavior), abuse (psychological, physical, sexual), and neglect (physical or emotional). The study asked participants how many of Adverse Childhood Experiences they endured as a child to find their “ACE score.”
The higher the ACE score, the higher their odds were for social, emotional, and/or cognitive impairment, adoption of health-risk behavior, disease, disability, and social problems, and early death. There is a direct correlation between high ACE scores and adult alcoholism, chronic depression, perpetuating domestic violence, and many other negative health outcomes. If childhood trauma goes untreated, the child’s brain neurons are forever changed to navigate the abuse. We inherently know negative experiences in childhood are the root of larger social issues of mental illness, domestic violence, and abuse, and now we have the numbers to prove it. With that in mind, how is it acceptable for 4,000 kids to experience homelessness in King County alone? Where is the disconnect?
The simplest solution to homelessness is affordable housing; even the kids understand that. When there’s uncertainty about where you will sleep, it’s close to impossible to focus on anything else. Us liberals can shake our heads all we want at gentrification and rising rents, but it’s nothing compared to what a mom escaping domestic violence goes through when trying to secure housing for her family.
Vote for affordable housing options and increased funding. Donate to local shelters. Volunteer your time and resources to support local transitional housing programs. Do something, even if you think it’s small. Complacency and unacknowledgement is part of what got us here in the first place.
Oftentimes when I share the injustices kids experiencing homelessness face, the reaction is something along the lines of, “wow, all the trauma and upheaval…they’re pretty broken then, right?” Let’s be clear. No child is “broken.” This sentiment is what allows us to accept broken systems that set our community’s children up for failure. It isn’t until we collectively view all children as valuable that we can effect change.