Spokane Co. students battle homelessness

One in 27 Spokane County schools are homeless. 

The Department of Education found the county's rate of homeless students is 33 precent higher than the state average.

SPOKANE, Wash. – There are nearly 3,000 students in Spokane County alone who are considered homeless.

When they leave school, one in 27 students have to find a couch to sleep on or end up in a shelter for a night. The Department of Education said Spokane County has a 33 percent higher than the state average.

Barb Silvey has worked in education for 35 years in Spokane. She teaches at Rogers High School where he is a an Intervention Specialist. It is part of Spokane Public School’s Homeless Education and Resource Team or HEART program.

Her class is like an academic in-school suspension. Students with poor grades, poor attendance and poor behaviors end up in her class. Slivey said all of these issues are often a result of being homeless.

"We have kids that are looking for a new place to sleep every night," Silvey said. She has made it her life’s mission to try and help those students succeed.

She keeps pictures of her past students on a classroom wall and is always eager to share their success stories.

“That kid in the military uniform right there, he was living in his car and now he runs the embassy in Laos," she said

Silvey said the number of homeless students has stayed the same for the 35 years she has been teaching. She keeps shampoo and soap stocked in her classroom for anyone that needs them. She cannot provide everything a student may need. Warm clothes and school supplies are always needed.

“These baskets probably fill and re-fill 20 times during the school year,” she said, referring to the baskets she keeps supplies.

Courtney Hill, a senior at Rogers, has been homeless since the beginning of her freshman year.

“It was October. We just no longer had the money afford our apartment,” she said.

The last four years have not been easy for Hill especially on the nights when her and her mom have to sleep in their car.

"We were cold,” she said. “We put down the seats in the back of our car and like laid in the trunk and it was a hard situation.”

Hill considers herself luck that she does not have to sleep on the streets every night. She credits her success in school to the HEART program and teachers like Silvey.

“They gave me extra time to turn in assignments, didn't really judge me for the days I wasn't at school because I didn't have money to buy my buss pass,” Hill said. “So there was like two or three days where I wasn't at school until I could get my bus pass."

Hill’s situation is not unique. She has some resources that not all of the kids do.

"We see increased behavior problems, increased depression, increased health problems and mental health problems and then also in their academic performance," Priority Spokane‘s Executive Director Ryan Oelrich said.

He works for a non-profit that brings together city leaders to address Spokane’s biggest problems.

Eastern Washington University and Priority Spokane published a study on student homelessness and ways to address the issue. It estimated that every dollar invested to preventing the problem will result in more than two dollars in public savings.

"When we looked at the data we were surprised to see a 60 percent increase in the number of homeless students over the last five years,” he said.

Oelrich has found that there are many reasons that causes students to be homeless. He said many poor families come to Spokane in search of help. That combined with a lack of affordable housing has added to the increase.

"These are families that have jobs,” Oelrich said. “Many times they have multiple jobs. But, even with multiple jobs they aren't able to bring in the income to afford housing and to support themselves and their families."

But he said there is no easy solution. It is hard to identify at-risk families because families are often embarrassed by their situation. Finding those families is the key to reversing the trend.

That is where House Bill 1682 comes in to help. It was signed into law in April that creates grant programs to add liaisons for homeless in schools, rental assistance, transportation help and more.

The idea is to build on the word already underway in classrooms, just like Silvey’s in Rogers High School and help provide news tools to schools that do not have any.

"If you provide some of the stuff that kids need that are base needs then you increase the chances that they'll be successful at school and be able to go on and be able to get out of the cycle of poverty," Silvey said.

Hill will be going to Washington State University in the fall and plans to study pre-veterinary medicine. Now she has to now deal with the stress of paying for college. 

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