Homeless in Highschool

What the recent increase in homelessness means.


Patrick Walsh

According to a new study by The Seattle Atlas for Student Homelessness, 1 in 13 Garfield students are homeless. The district wide study found that Garfield, a leader in Basketball and Robotics, also leads in its homeless population, with 136 homeless students enrolled. In the past four years, that number has increased by 84%, thanks mostly to increased reporting of homelessness.
These numbers give one an idea of the scope of homelessness, but, statistics like these can be easily dismissed or forgotten. One cannot empathize or connect with a number; instead, it’s through stories and portraits that people understand the numbers. So, what does it mean to be homeless at Garfield, and what is life like for some of those 136?
To get an inside perspective, the Messenger reached out to the Garfield community, and Sophie*, a junior, responded. Unsurprisingly, for someone often reduced to a statistic, Sophie wanted to make it clear that homeless students aren’t all the same.
“It’s not like we’re all the same, and it’s not like we’re all put in some special separate group”, said Sophie. For Sophie, being homeless didn’t overpower her identity. She didn’t identify as Sophie, the homeless student, but as Sophie, the slightly weird girl who was pretty good at math.
Mr. Willis, who was made Garfield’s coordinator for homeless students earlier this year, echoed Sophie’s sentiment. “You know, these kids are not all struggling. Some do well and some don’t just like the rest of us”, said Mr. Willis.
Sophie’s ability to succeed, despite her circumstances, is aided by the services Seattle Schools guarantee for all homeless students, including transportation to and from school, and basic food and housing. By ensuring such services, Garfield helped Sophie shift her focus away from survival, the primary focus if you’re hungry and cold, and towards her schoolwork.
Yet, as bright as Sophie is, she’s far from the top of her class, and while she hopes to attend college, it’s not a guarantee.
“I try, but there’s a lot of days when I’m behind”, said Sophie.
Sophie’s not the only homeless student who’s falls behind, as the recent Seattle Atlas for Student Homelessness survey revealed a massive gap between housed and homeless students. According to the study, homeless students in Seattle are twice as likely to test below their grade level in state exams, and are four times more likely to be absent 40+ days. Further compounding these problems, Seattle Schools discipline homeless students at twice the rate of other students, causing many chronically absent homeless students to miss even more school.

At Garfield, 51% of homeless students are chronically absent, missing over 10% of the school year.
This may seem obvious to some. Of course homeless students do worse in school. But to Sophie, it doesn’t make sense that a bright kid born without a house should suffer, while a lucky dummy born in a mansion gets to prosper.
“I don’t exactly know how they should level the playing field for school, but I know it’s super unlevel right now”
As Sophie suggests, nobody knows exactly how the current disparities can be fixed. Much of it may be a result of the uncertainty and constant adjusting which comes from lacking a steady home. As living arrangements can change frequently, transferring schools is often an unavoidable reality, and so homeless students transfer at four times the rate of housed students, making an unstable life even less stable.
Other contributions to the disparity between homeless and housed students are equally difficult to address, as they are rooted in the past. Nationwide, only 17% of homeless students attend preschool, compared to 51% for housed students. As a result, beginning with elementary school, many homeless students are already behind their peers, and, as most lack the studying resources that other students have, catching up is extremely difficult.
Looking towards senior year and beyond, Sophie is worried. There’s pressure to get a job, instability at home, and her first ever AP class. It’s tough to see a bright future when every day is clouded by urgency and stress. Regardless, Sophie is looking forward to college, and she’s far from alone. 58,000 formerly homeless students are enrolled in college right now. Wherever she ends up, she’s likely to find students like her, who, despite the odds, managed to outpace the lucky dummies.


*To preserve anonymity “Sophie’s” actual name was never revealed in the interview with us. Her real name is not Sophie.