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Survey shows homeless students need food, technology access and rental assistance

Ashley Gross
School districts, including Kent, have been distributing Wi-Fi hotspots to students in an effort to help them get online to continue their remote schooling.

In recent years, students experiencing homelessness or housing instability in Washington have numbered in the tens of thousands. A new survey shows that many of those students are struggling with basic needs amid the pandemic.

The nonprofit group Building Changes surveyed school district staff members who work with homeless students or youth in foster care. School districts employ so-called McKinney-Vento liaisons, named for the federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, to assist students who lack shelter or are living in vehicles or doubled up with friends or family.

The survey was conducted in April. The aim was to find out what the students’ biggest needs are during this public health and economic crisis. Building Changes sent the survey to 459 McKinney-Vento liaisons and received responses from 78 people, who serve more than 16,000 students experiencing homelessness.

“These were already households that didn’t have the proper level of access to resources and then, when the pandemic came through, they just got pushed further back,” said Samie Iverson, senior manager of education strategy for Building Changes.

The survey showed that the biggest needs are food and hygiene items, internet access, computing devices and rental assistance. Some school districts have been distributing devices and creating Wi-Fi hotspots, for example in district parking lots. Liaisons reported that they’ve been connecting with students and families by phone, text, email and video conference. Some have met students in person, but that’s rare, the survey report said.

Iverson said she’s concerned that the economic crisis could push more children into homelessness and that it will be hard to identify students who need services when schools are doing remote learning.

“What we’re learning also that I think we all knew in some way is that schools are really hubs for information, for resources, for having built relationships and trust from families, and we’ve lost that,” Iverson said.

Building Changes has partnered with the Raikes Foundation to create a COVID-19 Response Fund to help meet the needs of students experiencing homelessness. They’ve distributed more than $1 million to school districts and community groups, such as Mary’s Place.

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In July 2017, Ashley Gross became KNKX's youth and education reporter after years of covering the business and labor beat. She joined the station in May 2012 and previously worked five years at WBEZ in Chicago, where she reported on business and the economy. Her work telling the human side of the mortgage crisis garnered awards from the Illinois Associated Press and the Chicago Headline Club. She's also reported for the Alaska Public Radio Network in Anchorage and for Bloomberg News in San Francisco.