Tacoma Public Schools to expand housing for homeless students

More than 2,500 students in Tacoma Public Schools [TPS] are experiencing housing instability or homelessness, according to district officials. That’s more than any other school district in Washington.

"If you’re a homeless student of a duration or even for a short time, that trauma does have a lasting impact on your academic and overall social development," said Taj Jensen, a director with TPS who oversees the district’s Title I, LAP, and McKinney-Vento Services.

TPS said students at all levels are experiencing housing instability or homelessness, with most cases reported in high schools. Jensen explained 400 students are considered unaccompanied youth, meaning they don’t live with a parent or legal guardian.

"Which could vary from shelters, living in tents, living in cars, [they] could be bouncing from house to house, couch-surfing," said Jensen.

Communities across Pierce County and the state are lacking available affordable housing units. This creates critical barriers for vulnerable, low-income individuals and families.

"The demand is greater than what is necessarily available, so people get locked in the waitlist of getting supports," said Jensen.

Getting those supports could soon become easier for TPS students and their families facing homelessness. The district is partnering with the Tacoma Housing Authority by creating what’s called a ‘local preference waitlist.’

"Once we see that there is a big need for a specific population, we can create a specific waitlist preference for that population," said Fernando Ruiz, THA’s associate director of rental assistance. "Hopefully, with these families having access to our programs, having access to our vouchers, to our units that will help them step in the right direction."

Getting on this local preference waitlist will expand a family’s access to housing programs and support.

"What we’re doing is we are making our vouchers, and some of our units that we own, available," said Ruiz. "When other folks hear about these new programs, they have that fear that they’re on the waitlist, and they’re going to have to wait longer to be served. But that’s not the case. We aim to serve everybody who signed up on our waitlist within two years of getting accepted into the waitlist."

As part of the partnership, TPS will identify and refer eligible applicants to THA’s local preference waitlist who meet the criteria. The district will use its own staff to conduct the screenings and act as case managers to help the families through the process.

"They hold the hands of the hopefully soon-to-be tenants that are going to sign a lease. They walk them through the process, all the legal jargon, help them find places, make sure appointments are set up, if they need some classes for financial awareness," said Jensen.

Students must be currently receiving supportive services through the district to be eligible for the local preference waitlist.

The district offers multiple services for students and their families experiencing homelessness. Jensen said this new waitlist opportunity is in its early stages, but staff are currently working on their first group of referrals to THA.


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"My hope is maybe folks at the state level [will] start to see that this is a need for students, and that these types of programs are funded through the state, so that we have people within schools and school systems and public entities like this, where we can provide supports to students, so that we can keep them stable, and they don’t have to move," said Jensen.