Lawmakers consider a plan to help homeless college students

By Taylor McAvoy

WNPA Olympia News Bureau

OLYMPIA — A pilot project before lawmakers would provide funding for six college districts to provide services for homeless students.

The plan requires the Washington State Board of Education to establish four pilot programs in community or technical colleges, two on each side of the Cascades.

It also requires the Student Achievement Council to establish two more pilot programs at four-year universities, one on each side of the state.

The pilot project would run for about four years and expire in 2023.

Some of the proposed services include a case management program to help students find housing, meal plans, and offer stipends for clothing, laundry and showers.

“There are a lot of boundaries for homeless college students,” prime sponsor for HB 2854, Mike Sells, D-Everett, said at the bill’s hearing Jan. 24.

The goal of his bill, he said, is to determine the best way to help homeless students overcome some of those obstacles and focus on their education.

“This is something that does a lot of good and can show how we can adequately plan and serve the needs of our young people,” said Charles Adkins, director of legislative affairs for the Geoduck Student Union at Evergreen State College.

Now in stable housing, Adkins said he experienced homelessness in the past. He pointed out that simple needs such as showers and laundry can make a huge difference on a student’s ability to focus on coursework.

The Senate version of the bill, SB 6262, sponsored by Sen. Kevin Ranker, D-Orcas Island, includes the same proposed idea for the pilot project.

Ranker said he sponsored the bill after speaking with school counselors and homeless college students. From those conversations, he said, students felt embarrassed that they didn’t have a place to shower or store their possessions.

He said laundry services, showers and lockers would go a long way in helping a student focus on school.

“If we’re going to make sure everyone in our community has the opportunity to go to college, we have to accommodate their needs,” Ranker said.

Grays Harbor College President James Minkler said at the House bill’s hearing that it’s hard to gather accurate statistics on homeless college students because of the stigma surrounding the issue and the difficulty of counting a moving population.

However, the college’s Office of Institutional Effectiveness, Research and Planning conducted a survey of student housing situations. Minkler said of the 4,200 college students surveyed, the study found about 200 students reported living in an unstable housing environment.

A national study from the Wisconsin Hope Lab surveyed 33,000 students at 70 community colleges in 24 states. The survey found that about half of community college students were in insecure housing situations and about 13 percent were homeless.

“This work is important to us and our statewide efforts to end the cycle of poverty,” said Erin Frasier, policy director for the State Board for Community and Technical Colleges.

Colleges around the state already see the need and try to address it with the resources they have, she said, but they need the state’s help to fund some of these efforts.

According to the bill’s fiscal note, the proposed pilot project is estimated to cost $616,000 to pay for the implementation of the project but not the additional services required to maintain it. The money could come out of the state’s general fund.

The University of Washington, Washington State University, Eastern Washington University, Central Washington University, The Evergreen State College and Western Washington University each weighed in on the bill’s fiscal note to estimate their individual costs as candidates for pilot projects at their schools.

On-campus housing

Another House bill, HB 2386, would require public colleges that offer on-campus housing to provide a one-year waiver for on-campus housing to students who are first-year College Bound Scholarship recipients and considered homeless.

The College Bound Scholarship is a program providing four-year tuition to students from low income families. This bill passed out of the House appropriations committee last Tuesday where it awaits the Rules Committee.

Sen. Jeannie Darneille, D-Tacoma, offered an amendment on SB 6262 that would expand programming to include school renovation and building projects involving facilities such as lockers or showers. The amendment asks schools to reserve some new or renovated facilities for homeless youth.

Voicing her support of the bill, Darneille said that 23 percent of students surveyed at Bates Technical College in Tacoma live in unstable conditions. She said students often tried to go to school instead of maintaining a job to try to better themselves. But because of unstable housing, she said, that population had a high drop-out rate.

“It only succeeds in frustrating them in what was so near yet so far,” Darneille said.

The House version of the pilot program, HB 2854 missed its deadline last Tuesday to get a vote for any chance of passing this session.

However, the Senate’s version of the pilot program, SB 6262, and the House bill that would require colleges to offer on-campus housing for one year, HB 2386, both passed in executive session last Tuesday. The Rules Committee will consider the bills for a floor vote.

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This story is part of a series of news reports from the Washington State Legislature provided through a reporting internship sponsored by the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association Foundation.

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