A Stealth Homelessness is Growing, from Students

by Dr. Patrick Jones

The homeless in most communities can be easy to spot. These are adults we see camping under bridges, lying in doorways or standing around shelters. But another group of homeless – youth homeless – are largely hidden. They show up on school reports but not on street corners.

These homeless are K-12 students who are largely sheltered but without a permanent roof over their heads. Regard them as the “doubled-up” in household units or as couch surfers. And their numbers are considerably higher than the ones we’re most familiar with for the homeless.

Trends indicators 9.1.10, in the Our Valley Our Future section, portrays the numbers for the two counties. As one can easily see, the numbers in school districts in the area summed to 935 for the most recent school year. (The counts are typically taken in October.) And the number for the headline look at homeless – the one-day, “Point-in-Time” account?  About 260 for the most recent year, 2020, that Washington State has released. (One can view this at Trends indicator 9.1.9.)

For the eight years of student homelessness in the two counties tracked by the Trends, little progress is noticeable. In fact, the most recent rate, 47 per 1,000 (4.7%) of students is slightly higher than the one of school year 2014-2015. Further, the current rate is considerably higher than the Washington state average rate, 27.3 in school year 2021-2022.

The Trends allows for a deeper dive into geography, via the radio buttons on the graph. The rate of homeless students in Chelan County is slightly higher than the two-county average. In the largest district in the county, Wenatchee, the rate was about 65 per 1,000 (6.5%) in school year 2021-2022. Conversely, the overall rate in Douglas County was lower than the two-county average. For the largest district in the county, Eastmont, the most recent rate was about 28 per 1,000 students (2.8%).

The general causes of student homeless, just as those for adult homelessness, are many. They include physical and emotional abuse, poverty, family conflict, departures from foster homes, and coming out as LBGTQ+.  The causes in the two counties are likely no different.

While the Trends indicator on student homelessness doesn’t offer detail by some characteristics, they are available at the source, Washington OSPI. In both districts, Latino/Hispanic students dominate the numbers. In the Wenatchee District, for example, 71% stemmed from this ethnicity, while the share in Eastmont was a bit less, at 69%. These are disproportionate numbers. For the most recent year in which OSPI offers detail on the homeless, 2018-2019, the share of Latino/Hispanic students in the Wenatchee school district was about 51%; for Eastmont, 47%.

It should come as no surprise that over 91% of Eastmont students were classified as homeless were also designated as low income. For the Wenatchee district, the ratio was nearly 100%.

How to help, then, a distressed population of young people that is growing, unlike the state average? The detail offered by OSPI gives some clues. First, reduce poverty among families of school-age children. The most lasting anti-poverty measure is to increase income, in particular wage income. As of 2020, the average annual wage in the counties was a bit over $45,000. That represented a cumulative 25% increase since 2015. That is progress, but the level is still the lowest among all Eastern Washington metro areas, except Yakima.

Wages of Latino/Hispanic workers have traditionally been far below the two-county average. Census, through its Quarterly Workforce Indicators, shows that average monthly earnings of Latinos/as in mid-year 2021 were about 70% of non-Hispanic earnings. This represents slight progress from four years prior, when Latinos monthly earnings were 66% of non-Latino earnings.

A significant factor for low wages in the two counties lies in the prominence of agriculture and hospitality. Together, the two sectors make up one third of the workforce. This represents the highest combined share in all of eastern Washington’s metros. The two are also the lowest-paying among the top local five sectors, as seen in Trends indicator 2.3.3.  And they employ thousands of Hispanics/Latinos.

Raising the metro average annual wage, then, could involve raising wages in these two sectors. This has likely happened over the past year. To keep employers afloat, however, wage increases will ultimately need to be matched by productivity gains and/or price hikes.

Another way of raising wages lies in the expansion of higher paying industries. Those sectors in the two counties that pay higher-than-average wages include finance & insurance, professional & technical services and healthcare. Expanding these sectors is, of course, high on the list of most communities.

Strategies to counter other causes of student homelessness, such as family conflict and abuse, don’t lend themselves to general fixes. To the degree that drugs and alcohol are involved, existing programs might be able to help. But it is likely that north central Washington finds itself like the rest of the state – low on certified counselors.  Ditto for family trauma initiated by mental illness. If, as elsewhere, the rejection of a young person’s sexual identify is a cause here for youth homeless, one can only hope that a greater tolerance will prevail here.

There are some avenues, then, to improve the determinants of student homelessness. Driving down them might be slow. But it seems non-controversial that the curve needs to start bending downward. Without that bend, the two counties can only expect youth homelessness to graduate into adult homelessness.