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Over 400 homeless Renton students ‘not a crisis’ say school officials

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As “snowmageddon” approached the region in February, Diane Dobson posted a number on Facebook. It was a number that shocked many in the community: 464 Renton School District students at the time were homeless.

“This is a number that needs to be shared,” Dobson said. “People need to be aware of the challenges that are faced and the circumstances that are facing some of our most vulnerable population.”

Dobson works on a Renton homeless task force. She says that, like Seattle, Renton also has a homeless population that’s getting out of control. Many kids who are homeless end up couch surfing or staying with friends. They sleep in cars, at motels, or in the woods. Even on the streets.

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Part of this is attributed to Renton only having one homeless shelter with a capacity for 59 people.

“We have lots of resources within the city of Renton. We have opportunities for people to receive clothing, to receive food, to receive assistance, to receive resources,” she said. “But there’s no shelter, and so as a community we saw more and more people coming into the community to receive those resources, and then they have nowhere to go.”

If you’re surprised to learn the truth about homeless students, imagine being Isabella, a senior at Renton’s Hazen High School, who recently found out how many of her classmates are homeless.

“I found out that I shared classrooms with three different kids who are homeless, and that’s something that took me completely by surprise, and I had no idea there were homeless teens at my school,” she said. “The teachers never talked about it. I just never saw homeless people around this part of my city, so I did not think that was a thing.”

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Isabella works on the student newspaper. She did what any journalist would do with information: She got to work to uncover the truth. That began with the school’s counselor.

“She said there was over 30 in our school, and then she said there’s over 300 in our district, and I found out through later research that there’s over 600 in the district.”

There were more than 600 homeless students in the Renton School District last school year, she said. The number for this school year is currently over 500, and believed to be growing.

It’s a number that’s shocking to Isabella and something deeply disturbing to Dobson, but according to Randy Matheson — Community Relations with the Renton School District — this isn’t a crisis.

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“It’s not a crisis; it’s a situation where we’re identifying students who are in need, students and families who are in need of some kind of shelter, and we’re working with them to find that,” Matheson said. “But there’s not a crisis where there’s homeless teens who are attending Renton schools that don’t have any place to live.”

Matheson says there are more than enough places to live in Renton.

“There are very few families and children who are looking for a shelter; they’re being serviced in different ways. So there are places for them to stay. There’s a shelter in Renton,” he said. “But the great majority are actually looking for other accommodations, and that’s how we help them out. We find places for them to stay, or they find places with their friends and family members, and then we’re providing them food and gas cards and space heaters and blankets and other things that allow them to stay comfortable at the house that they’re staying in.”

Those services come at a cost. McKinney-Vento is a federal program that mandates services to homeless children in public schools across the state, including transportation.

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Last school year, the Renton School District spent $1.2 million on homeless student transportation under McKinney-Vento, but they were denied federal grant money. Because while the law requires a district to get students to school, the district is in no way guaranteed federal funds to do it.

That $1.2 million came out of the Renton School District’s General Fund. To put that number into perspective, the city of Renton’s entire homeless services budget is around $150,000 per year.

But the school district still says there is no crisis. Those in the trenches with the students and their families disagree.

“They’re very transient, sometimes their numbers change and their cellphone numbers are disconnected and whatnot, so it’s hard to get a hold of that student,” said Assistant Principle Harlan Warrior from Hazen High School, where there are approximately 30 homeless students. “Generally you don’t have a parent to be able to call and know where they are, so they’re on their own.”

Warrior believes there are many more, but are afraid to speak up.

“There’s definitely a stigma associated with it, and students don’t want to be associated with needing support or being considered homeless, because to them it reflects on their parents and not having the support that all the other students have,” he said.

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“There’s many students I’m sure who are sleeping on couches and bunking up and sleeping on floors, and generally if we have a high school student that is experiencing homelessness, there are siblings in elementary schools that are experiencing homelessness also.”

Meanwhile, a month after the big snow storm — when we first learned of the homeless student population — the number has grown from 464 students to 500, and counting.

Update: A previous version of this article said there were 480 homeless children attending school in Renton. That number has since been updated to over 500.

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