Homelessness Briefing

Skagit County Public Health Director Jennifer Johnson (left) speaks Monday at the Homelessness Issue Briefing.

MOUNT VERNON — Panels of social services providers and school district representatives described Monday the hardships experienced by homeless children and adults, and the underlying issues that cause those hardships.

Skagit County Public Health Director Jennifer Johnson described some of the situations that lead to homelessness — mental illness for some, chronic illness for others and for many just one bad day.

“Homelessness is a combination of things,” said Johnson. “It’s often just one tragic incident, like losing a partner, that can change someone’s living circumstances, and those are the individuals that we see on the streets.”

Two panel discussions were part of an event on homelessness and its impact on children and schools that was organized by the Skagit County League of Women Voters.

The lack of affordable housing was a common refrain throughout the night and through both panels. Johnson told those in attendance that there is a zero percent vacancy rate for places to rent.

Monthly rent continues to spike higher each year, and each increase in the median monthly rent has an impact on homeless rates, Johnson said.

She said that in 2018 there were 1,633 individuals, including 606 children, who sought and qualified for homeless services.

Some panel members shared stories of children in need who were given help and support from staff, teachers and community members.

La Conner School District Superintendent Whitney Meissner told a story about an eighth grade boy who was taken shopping by staff and given a chance to have a shower so he would be able to participate in middle school graduation photos.

“This isn’t something they are required to do, but he wasn’t going to be able to participate if he didn’t have clean and appropriate clothing. So it’s not just housing, it’s other basic needs,” she said.

Though these stories are uplifting, the trouble is they are temporary fixes, Mount Vernon School District Superintendent Carl Bruner said.

“We talk about how great our teachers are ... our principals are great ... our counselors do a remarkable job and yet that really isn’t a sustainable model for addressing these kids’ needs,” Bruner said.

The problem is systemic, and the solution must also be systemic, said Stephanie Thomas director of assessment and data systems for the Mount Vernon School District.

Being homeless has an impact on academic success, multiple panelists attested. According to Johnson, only 33 percent of homeless children graduate on time.

Bruner said instability in the lives of children can affect their ability to retain information and learn.

“Children need to live in safety,” Bruner said. “They just do.”

State Sen. Liz Lovelett, D-Anacortes, said that there can be no single solution to homelessness.

“There’s going to need to be a lot of strategic partnerships,” she said. “One-size-fits-all is never going to be a strategy that is going to work for this.”

Meissner observed that listening and empathizing with those who are suffering is also key. She stressed that the needs felt by the homeless are the fundamental needs of every human being.

“We need to keep offering a helping hand ... how difficult can it be to provide the basic needs every human being needs, food shelter and clothing? I learned about this in first grade and we’re still not providing it to our communities,” Meissner said.

— Assistant Assignment Editor Iain Woessner: 360-416-2193.

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