Every student deserves a fair shot at success in and out of schools. For students to achieve academic success, they need a safe, stable home, and support systems in schools and communities that will take into consideration their experience and background. Thanks to the Homeless Student Stability Program (HSSP), more students experiencing housing instability and homelessness in the state of Washington can receive comprehensive housing and education support services that may otherwise be unavailable to them.
HSSP is the first of its kind in the country. It is a statewide grant program specifically designed to encourage partnerships between education and housing systems so that they can improve support and increase resources for students experiencing homelessness. This intentional collaboration between both systems broadens the scope of support that schools and community-based organizations can provide in three important ways.
First, when schools and organizations work in partnership with each other, they can share information and resources, lean on each other’s expertise, and get a fuller picture of students’ and their families’ needs. As a result, schools and organizations can more effectively provide personalized resources and services for students and families in a more coordinated way.
Samie Iverson, senior manager of education strategy at Building Changes explains, “Housing providers and schools may be serving the same students and the same households in a similar housing crisis. When they’re not working together, it really puts a lot of weight on the students and families to figure it out themselves.”
She continued to describe the daily impact disconnected systems can have on students. “Students may have to share their housing story multiple times, they’ll talk to this person and that person, they’ll be given two separate lists of resources, they’ll get information from housing and another from schools. It just puts a lot of additional stress on students to figure it all out when they’re in a crisis,” she said.
Second, grants from HSSP allow communities to use funds to help pay for immediate housing needs so that students and their families can obtain and sustain permanent housing. Community-based organizations funded by HSSP have used flexible funding to help students pay for urgent needs, such as emergency rental assistance, move-in costs, and utility payments. These needs reached an even greater level of urgency during the pandemic when students and families were asked to move out sooner from doubled-up situations because of COVID-19 risks. They were also impacted by the lack of available affordable housing in their communities, an unintended consequence of the eviction moratorium. Organizations also reported that the severity and frequency of domestic violence cases increased, adding to students’ built-up pressure to find safe, stable housing while juggling schoolwork.
Third, this collaboration helps schools and communities expand on their homeless identification process and ability to quickly provide support for students, including those with uncertain housing statuses. This includes 74% of Washington’s homeless students who are living doubled-up and sharing temporary housing with multiple households due to loss of their own place, economic hardship, or similar reasons.
Building Changes’ last report on student homelessness in Washington showed that students living in doubled-up living situations have similar academic outcomes as those who are unsheltered or living in temporary housing (for example, hotels, motels, and shelters). Yet, students living in doubled-up situations are often deprioritized or ineligible for traditional housing support services, such as those from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). This is due to a misalignment in how HUD and our state and federal education systems define “homelessness.”
The federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act provides funds to school districts to support students experiencing homelessness, but schools’ needs far exceed available funds. HSSP funds helps to augment school funding to improve support for students experiencing homelessness.
Since joining Building Changes in 2019, Iverson has been leading HSSP’s work by supporting community-based organizations, facilitating partnerships between schools and housing providers, and advocating to bolster HSSP. As someone who has experience as a housing advocate and a homeless student liaison, she understands the tough position school staff and housing service providers face as they try to serve as many students in housing crisis as possible without sufficient resources and information.
“It’s not because school support staff don’t want that to partner with their housing resource organization. I want to be clear about that. It’s that they don’t always have the support or capacity. It takes time to identify who your students are and how to best support them while also balancing school district’s priorities,” Iverson said.
As a trusted community partner with statewide reach, Building Changes continues to work with organizations to help them expand on their capacity. While schools and community-based organizations are responding to students’ immediate crises, Building Changes has the capacity to work at the intersection of multiple systems, including housing and education. This allows us to have a panoramic view of the state of student homelessness in Washington. We can also connect systems with each other so that they can share challenges, solutions, and up-to-date information on how to effectively support students.
We have also been vocal about improvements we want to see in HSSP. In 2019, we explicitly included language on racially equitable services in HSSP’s statute to account for the nearly six out of 10 BIPOC homeless students in Washington. This statistic shows that students of color experience homelessness at disproportionate rates compared to their white peers.
“We’re acknowledging that institutional racism exists. We know students of color are not thriving at the same rate as their white peers as we see higher disciplinary rates, higher suspension rates, and all these things that point to the fact that students of color are up against a lot more than their white peers,” Iverson said.
This upcoming legislative session in January will be a crucial moment for HSSP as Building Changes and our youth advocacy partners will request an additional $5.6 million in funding for the program. HSSP’s current fund of $4.4 million per biennium is simply not enough to support the 40,000 students experiencing homelessness in Washington State. Just in its most recent grant round, OHY received 19 applications from community-based organizations requesting over $4 million for a one-year grant cycle.
With increased HSSP funds, the state can serve more communities, including those in rural areas with fewer youth shelters, housing availability, and resources than urban areas. HSSP funds can increase capacity and provide much-needed flexible funds to school districts and housing organizations so that they can address people’s more immediate needs. The required partnerships woven into HSSP is an important strategy that can help build capacity, resources, and support services in school districts and community-based organizations as they expand on providing more people-centered and culturally relevant services for Washington’s diverse student population.
“I deeply believe in partnerships and collaborations between schools and housing providers. It doesn’t mean it’s not going to be challenging and will require systems to change, but HSSP is built to serve and stabilize students and families experiencing homelessness, and I believe in it. Period,” Iverson said.