Originally posted in Crosscut  on April 15, 2013

Homeless students would suffer with state Housing Trust Fund cuts

Guest Opinion: Facing demands for school funding, legislators are looking for other savings. But homeless kids need a place to live.

Have you ever been driving behind a school bus on I-5 or I-90 and noticed there is only one kid on board? Like most people you probably had no idea you’d just witnessed a homeless child being transported to school from a shelter, transitional housing or even more uncertain living arrangement.

Imagine how it feels to step off that bus alone in front of your classmates. That unwanted attention can only add to the daily trauma of surviving without a home in a region that prides itself on its quality of life.

Over 5,000 children (a third of them under the age of 10) are homeless in public schools throughout King County. That’s the equivalent of about eight elementary schools or almost 200 school buses full of kids who sleep each night on a shelter cot, on a couch or floor in a tenuous doubled-up situation or in the back seat of a car parked on some dark side street.

We should make sure that the problem for families doesn’t get worse, as could happen under proposed budgets in Olympia. The families of these children don’t have financial control over their housing situation and must struggle to maintain even a sliver of the stability such control allows the rest of us. No child asks to be homeless and no parent wants their child to go through that experience.  But because rents are high and pay is low (assuming steady work can be found), homelessness or the imminent risk of homelessness persists for far too many of our neighbors .

It’s a difficult fact to absorb: Here in one of the most financially well-off parts of the nation, thousands of precious young people are living day-to-day without the basic security of a safe and healthy place to call home. No one can assign any blame to those children for their situation; they didn’t ask to be homeless and they are powerless to change that situation.

Fortunately for these kids and their parents there is a known and proven solution; nonprofit affordable housing with built-in rental subsidies or below-market rent structures. Over a thousand apartments like that exist in King County and the families living in them now have the basic stability to focus on employment, job training, education and a future they thought they’d never see.

Most of those guaranteed-affordable apartments were built with funding from Washington’s State Housing Trust Fund. Over the years millions of Housing Trust Fund dollars have leveraged millions more in local, federal and private investments to create these guaranteed-affordable homes, but this year, the Housing Trust Fund is endangered as never before.

The Washington State Senate recently released a capital budget that includes only $35 million for the Housing Trust Fund. The $35 million over two years would be close to a historic low in the 24 year history of the fund.

The House of Representatives released a capital budget on April 10 with $71 million for the Housing Trust Fund and affordable housing. While certainly a stronger commitment than the Senate’s, and as such much appreciated by affordable housing advocates, even that larger number is in stark contrast to the $350 million in pending projects submitted to the Department of Commerce in January of this year.

The advocates include residents of affordable housing and shelters, nonprofit organizations that serve the homeless and those at-risk of losing their homes, local elected officials, business people and concerned citizens of all political persuasions. They understand that housing stability is the key to equitable and vibrant communities that provide opportunities for all.

One of the pressures on all legislators this session is the state Supreme Court’s McCleary mandate to significantly increase the state’s investment in public K-12 education. That mandate alone won’t help the 27,000 homeless school kids throughout the state in reaching their potential or recovering from the deep shock of being without a home. Children without stable homes struggle to keep pace with peers who do have a home to return to each day when that final school bell rings.

Harry Hoffman is Vice-President/Western Washington for the Washington Housing Alliance Action Fund.