Learning from data on homeless students

“Homelessness up again in King County” – the recurring headline, steady as a drumbeat, reminds us of the paradox of our region’s economic prosperity:  A flourishing job market increases competition for housing and squeezes out lower- and middle-income households.  Data informing most policy decisions about regional homelessness come almost exclusively from two sources – COUNT US IN (also known as the Point-in-Time or One-Night Count), and the Seattle/King County Homeless Management Information System (HMIS), a secure online database of information about services provided to people experiencing homelessness.

A third dataset –  HOMELESS STUDENTS DATA (an annual report prepared by the Washington Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction) – offers a wealth of information about family homelessness, but so far has not been used to guide policy for prevention or mitigation of homelessness.

Although COUNT US IN and HOMELESS STUDENT DATA are updated annually, overlap in the individuals they count is limited by differences in method and definition:

Method

  • Each January, COUNT US IN sends out teams of volunteers to provide a one-time “snapshot” of the number of people of all ages who are experiencing homelessness. This includes counts of sheltered and unsheltered individuals plus an in-person survey of a subset of these individuals. The method is inherently conservative, and its report acknowledges undercounting homeless individuals in suburban and rural communities and those in hard-to-reach subpopulations such as unsheltered families and unaccompanied youth.
  • HOMELESS STUDENTS DATA are collected throughout the school year by teachers and other school personnel and provide a count of students (preschool through grade 12) who were known to be homeless at any time during the academic year.

Definition

  • While both data sources count as homeless people living unsheltered or sheltered (in emergency shelters, transitional housing, or safe havens), COUNT US IN, following criteria specified by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), excludes homeless individuals and families who are “doubled up” with friends, family, or others in homes, hotels/motels, or other arrangements.
  • In contrast, following specifications from the U.S. Department of Education and the Washington State Legislature, HOMELESS STUDENTS DATA includes “doubling up” in their definition of homelessness: about 2/3 of students without a stable home in the most recent (2016-17) count were doubled up.

Differences aside, both counts lead to the same sorry conclusion:  As the fortunes of some King County residents are tracking the region’s recovery from The Great Recession, increasing numbers of our neighbors are becoming homeless.  According to COUNT US IN 2018, 12,112 individuals were homelessness in Seattle/King County on January 26th, up by 4% from 2017 (due to changes in methodology in 2017, comparisons with pre-2017 counts are discouraged).  Similarly, HOMELESS STUDENTS DATA reported that 8,938 King County public school students experienced homelessness during the 2016-17 school year, up by 8% from the previous year and more than double the number in 2010-11. The numbers of unsheltered individuals have also gone up in the most recent counts, by 15% for COUNT US IN – from 5,485 (2017) to 6,320 (2018) – and by 39% for HOMELESS STUDENTS DATA – from 244 (2015-16 SY) to 339 (2016-17SY).

What can we learn by looking at these datasets together?  Striking similarities emerge when we look at subgroups in these datasets. (Complementing the data from HOMELESS STUDENTS DATA, the Seattle Atlas of Student Homelessness, an in-depth analysis of data from Seattle Public Schools by the Institute for Children, Poverty & Homelessness (ICPH) offers examples of how housing instability compounds existing disparities for outcomes such as academic achievement and school suspensions.)

  • RACIAL DISPARITIES: Blacks/African Americans and Hispanics/Latinos are disproportionately represented in both homelessness counts.
  • DISABILITIES: More than half of the COUNT US IN survey respondents said they were living with at least one disabling condition, and 21% of homeless students were in Special Education (about double the rate for students who were not homeless).
  • LIMITED ENGLISH PROFICIENCY: The COUNT US IN survey found that respondents from families with children were 6 times more likely than those without children to encounter language barriers when trying to access services. HOMELESS STUDENTS DATA reported that 22% of homeless students were “English Language Learners” (compared to 11% of students overall).
  • PRIOR HOMELESSNESS: COUNT US IN 2018 reported a 1-year increase of 779 individuals (28%) experiencing chronic homelessness; more than 1 in 5 respondents to the COUNT US IN survey first experienced homelessness when they were children, and almost half had experienced homelessness before age 25. While HOMELESS STUDENTS DATA does not report on chronic homelessness, the Seattle Atlas of Student Homelessness, found that more than half of Seattle Public School students who were homeless in the 2015-16 school year had also been homeless in previous years.
  • DOUBLING UP: More than 1 in 4 respondents to the COUNT US IN survey reported that immediately before becoming homeless they were “doubled up” (living in a home owned or rented by relatives or friends). This suggests that by counting students who are doubled up, HOMELESS STUDENTS DATA identifies students at risk of ending up on the street, in a shelter, or in transitional housing. Because repeated episodes of homelessness are common (see PRIOR HOMELESSNESS above), paying attention to the doubled-up population could eventually help reduce chronic homelessness. Currently, as noted by the ICPH report on Seattle student homelessness, “doubled-up students are not eligible for many of the same housing resources as other homeless students.”

Finally, while COUNT US IN provides homeless counts for 6 broad regions of King County, HOMELESS STUDENTS DATA offers almost a decade of data for 18 school districts across the region, revealing different patterns over time in different communities.  While the rate of homelessness has leveled off in some school districts, it continues to climb steadily in others.  In Tukwila, for example, student homelessness surged from 47 students (1.6% of enrollment) in 2007-08 to 375 (12.7%) in 2016-17 – an 8-fold increase in less than 10 years.  In the same period, the number of Seattle public school students without a stable home grew from 930 (2.0% of enrollment) to 4,280 (7.9%), while a few districts (Mercer Island, Vashon Island, and Skykomish) never had a year in which more than 20 students experienced homelessness.

REDUCING THE FLOW TO CHRONIC HOMELESSNESS?

Broadening our homelessness policy perspective to include individuals and families who are doubled up could help us identify families at risk for homelessness before they have exhausted their last personal resource (the family and friends willing to take them in).  Chicago is already looking at doubled-up families by, for the first time, linking information from their official database of homeless individuals accessing services (HMIS) with data from the public schools.  By combining data sources, they are able to better understand families’ paths to homelessness and to project future needs for services.  Following a similar course in King County could enable us to come up with a more prevention-oriented approach to what has become a chronic problem in our communities.

NOTE: Communities Count has reported on student homelessness for several years, and is about to update that indicator with 2016-17 data. To coordinate with the newly released COUNT US IN report, this blog previews key findings from that update.

Homelessness: 2nd annual media blitz

A year ago, more than 30 Seattle media outlets joined a coordinated media response to the region’s homelessness crisis.  Despite sincere and sometimes successful efforts by city and county governments, local businesses and philanthropies, and community-based organizations, homelessness in King County still qualifies as a crisis.

In January, the one-night count of sheltered plus unsheltered homeless in King County was 11,643, generating the local headline, “A city the size of Woodinville is sleeping in our streets.”  But the annual count used a new method in 2017, so that number can’t validly be compared to previous results.

We have another source of data, though. School districts in Washington are required to “track their homeless students and report that data annually to OSPI” (Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction), which in turn reports to the state legislature.  Communities Count has compiled these data for King County school districts going back to the 2007-2008 school year.  By 2015-2016, student homelessness statewide had ballooned to 39,671 – a 52% increase in just 5 years. Over the same period, student homelessness in King County almost doubled — from 4,423 in 2010-11 to 8,411 in 2015-2016 (see chart). Of the 19 school districts in King County, the number of homeless students declined in only 2 (see school district trends).  Washington schools use the U.S. Department of Education’s definition of student homelessness, explained in detail here.

Options for monitoring national and local media coverage of homelessness on June 28th include a national conversation curated by CityLab, Crosscut’s social media pages (Facebook and Twitter), and hashtag #500kHomeless.

 

Pediatricians urged to tackle poverty head-on

For the first time ever, The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has issued a policy statement on poverty.  As affirmed by AAP President Benard P. Dreyer, “research shows that living in deep and persistent poverty can have detrimental health consequences that are severe and lifelong.”  Acknowledging that “almost half of young children in the United States live in poverty or near poverty,” the AAP has emerged as a strong advocate for programs and policies that improve health and quality of life for children and families living in poverty.

Pediatricians are being asked to do more than increase their awareness of poverty.  In the context of a family-centered medical home that coordinates strategies to address social determinants of health (poverty, for example), physicians are urged to:

  • Assess family financial stability (perhaps by asking if the family has trouble making ends meet at the end of the month).
  • Screen for risks for adversity (food insecurity, maternal depression, family instability, unemployment, frequent moves).
  • Identify family strengths that protect against adversity (secure attachment to caretakers; strong family and social connections; responsive, nurturing, and consistent parenting).
  • Coordinate care with community partners (such as those providing legal aid and job training, and addressing issues like food, energy, and housing insecurity).
  • Participate in programs that integrate behavioral health into primary care (Incredible Years and Triple P) and promote literacy (Reach Out and Read and the Video Interaction Project [VIP]).
  • Link families to community resources that support and assist families in need.
  • Advocate for programs/policies that buffer children against adverse effects of poverty. Examples include:
    • Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC)
    • Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF)
    • Raising the minimum wage
    • Supports for quality child care and early childhood education
    • Access to comprehensive health care
    • Nutrition support such as WIC (the Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children), SNAP (formerly “food stamps”), and the National School Lunch Program
    • Home visiting programs such as the Nurse-Family Partnership

Does this go “above and beyond” what should be expected of a pediatrician?  The AAP affirms that it’s all in the line of duty:  prevention of childhood diseases – an accepted pediatric mandate – depends in part on “early detection and management of poverty-related disorders.”

Of course pediatricians cannot tackle poverty on their own. In King County, they can expect support from a wide assortment of community-based organizations and effective programs already in place. They should also be able to tap into the expertise and community networks that continue to evolve around regional efforts such as Communities of Opportunity and Best Starts for Kids, which are already aligned with the goals of the AAP’s war against child poverty.

For data on poverty-related indicators, see Communities Count updates on food, housing, income, qualification for free/reduced-price school meals, and the relationship between adult health outcomes and adverse childhood experiences.  Communities Count has recently added several years of data on student homelessness, making it easier to look at trends (by school district) from 2007-08 through 2014-15 school years.  For data on child, maternal, and adult health, see King County’s Community Health Indicators.

Anyone could be homeless

Starting March 1st, eight short videos about homelessness in our region became available on The Moth’s YouTube site.   Last year, National Public Radio’s StoryCorps team and Seattle University’s Project on Family Homelessness invited local residents to talk about their experiences with homelessness. The resulting stories briefly convey (< 10 minutes each) the broad spectrum of circumstances that can leave families without a home.  They remind us that, despite the best-laid plans, anyone could be homeless.

This message is echoed in Communities Count’s new student homelessness update.  In the 2014-15 school year, homelessness among King County public school students has increased again – to an all-time high of 7,260.  In the Tukwila district, 1 in 9 students was homeless last year.  Almost half of homeless students (3,478) were in pre-K or elementary school; more than half “doubled-up” with friends or relatives because their own family was unable to provide stable housing.

For the first time, Communities Count provides downloadable student homelessness data for the past 8 school years. Updates on housing affordability can be found in the Housing section of Communities Count.  For additional information on homelessness in King County, go to AllHome.

StoryCorps™ focuses on family homelessness in Puget Sound region.

National Public Radio’s StoryCorps™ came to Western Washington this summer to record stories of homelessness among families in King, Pierce, and Snohomish Counties. The project, “Finding Our Way,” was conducted in partnership with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Seattle University, and homeless services providers. The first local story aired on NPR’s “Morning Edition” on August 22nd. According to the most recent data posted on Communities Count, close to 6,200 public school students in King County were homeless in the 2012-2013 school year.