Wendy Wojtanowicz, the Communities In Schools of Peninsula site coordinator at Key Peninsula Middle School and Peninsula High, has seen the face of homelessness in our community too many times.
“John” was referred to CISP because of repeated absences. As part of the program, he received tutoring twice a week. Over a period of about a month, he revealed that he had been living in a car with his mother for the last year. They parked the car in various locations, so he never had a stable place to catch the school bus. Without dependable transportation, he missed school.
Wojtanowicz stepped in to find help for both student and parent. She located a steady pickup and drop-off site for the bus. CISP was able to provide a laptop with hotspot access to the internet for homework (a program that is no longer available). The YMCA provided shower facilities and the local food bank supplied food that did not require cooking.
John’s mother had lost her job after a work-related injury. She had a cellphone, but any minutes on it were precious. Wojtanowicz helped her find local resources for jobs and she found employment. Once employed, they concentrated on housing. Wojtanowicz connected her with Associated Ministries in Tacoma and coached her on navigating the system to find local housing.
And, finally, John received counseling to help him address issues arising from the stress of his homeless experience. (Some identifying details, including his name, have been changed to protect the family’s privacy.)
“This is not isolated,” Wojtanowicz said. “It feels like I see one or two a week in similar circumstances.”
The number of local students identified as homeless has recently sky-rocketed. According to Peninsula School District, there were 31 homeless students in the district in 2011-12. Last year, it was 127. Thirty-seven have already been identified this school year.
PSD coordinates services for these students with counselors at each school. “We have an amazing number of community volunteers,” said Lisa Reaugh, assistant director of student services at PSD. “Our goal is to have each student have an uninterrupted educational experience, and to stay in the same school if at all possible.”
CISP, a national organization, was established in this area in 2000. Its office is next door to the Red Barn in Key Center. It provides coordinators who work directly with students and their families at Evergreen and Vaughn Elementary and at KPMS and Peninsula High. The coordinators develop relationships with the students and work with other organizations to meet basic housing and food needs while also identifying volunteers to mentor and tutor students. For schools without site coordinators, families or students can contact CISP directly.
Any family or child can talk to any adult at their school and get a referral to the school counselor or the CISP site coordinator for help. PSD also administers a survey to all new students (and will expand to reach all students) to screen for those who may need help, according to Reaugh.
But it can be a challenge to identify the students.
“There is a lot of distrust about opening up to having any issues,” said Laurel Shultz, CISP program director. “They want to be seen as self-sufficient, not taking advantage of systems. In many cases, they don’t even know that help is available, and once they do they are leery of accepting it. There’s pride.”
The definition of homelessness for students is broad and they are eligible for many services. It includes anyone without a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence, including migrant and unaccompanied children. This includes children who are temporarily sharing housing with others; who are living in hotels, campgrounds, emergency shelters or cars; or who are awaiting foster care or are in temporary placements.
“The site coordinators worked with 24 students considered homeless on the Key Peninsula last year,” said Shultz. “That’s an anecdotal number not necessarily reflected in our data system, but tracked confidentially because it’s often difficult to get parent permission to help a homeless student.”
“The homeless numbers around Harbor Heights are higher than KP,” said Colleen Speer, CISP executive director. “But there are so many untracked residents out here that there could be many, many homeless kids and we can’t get to them if they don’t go to school. That’s the sad part, because we hear things from other families.”
“What I see, too, with free and reduced lunch, is that elementary school kids and their families are way more apt to sign up, but by the time kids get older that changes,” Shultz said. “High school students especially, they don’t want to say, ‘I need a free lunch.’ You don’t want to be designated as needing anything when you’re in high school, not even a pen.”
“CISP works with kids to assure academic and social/emotional success, to keep kids in school,” Wojtanowicz said. “Inadequate food and shelter get in the way of meeting those goals and need to be solved first. There are just not sufficient resources in place to meet those basic needs.”
Children’s Home Society, a statewide nonprofit with an office at the KP Civic Center, is another local resource that serves about 1,000 people a year with a clothing bank, emergency rent and utility assistance, and after-school programs in all PSD elementary schools and at KPMS.
“I know that school personnel take care of lunch and breakfast for kids they know are homeless, so at least they’re getting some food, and then there’s the Food Backpacks 4 Kids program (which provides food for weekends or longer),” said Jud Morris, director of Children’s Home Society. “It’s one of these things where everyone is trying to take care of everything else, but the housing component is so beyond everyone’s scope or finances.”
Finding housing for families is one of the largest unmet needs on the Key Peninsula because there are very few options, Wojtanowicz said. The Westwynd Motel has been generous in offering short-term transitional housing. Associated Ministries and Olive Crest (in Tacoma and working primarily with foster home placements) have been helpful. Once housed, families can go to NW Furniture Bank, which now partners with CISP.
“These are our families,” Wojtanowicz said. “Many have simply fallen on hard times and need help for a limited time as they get back on their feet.”
A group including CISP, CHS, PSD, the Tacoma Health Department and FISH Food Bank have met to compare their collective data with the latest U.S. census and concluded there is an unmet need for transitional housing in this community.
Wojtanowicz said the next step will be to work on answers.