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The number of homeless students increases in Kent School District

The number of homeless students in the Kent School District is growing every year.

After only three months of school, 158 students are seeking services for homelessness.

"This is already a significantly larger number than we had at this time last year," said Elizabeth Gongora-Knight, liaison for the Kent School District's homeless program."There are more out there we don't know about yet or are still in the process of screening their applications."

For the 2010-11 school year, there were about 400 students classified as homeless by the end of the year count. Based on the count so far, the number is expected to be 500 at the end of the 2011-12 school year, Gongora-Knight said.

The district is partners with McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act program, which works with contacts at schools to ensure students are getting the care they need to attend and perform well at school. The act ensures children receive free transportation to and from school and are informed about nearby homeless shelters.

King County has more homeless students than many of Washington state's rural counties, but in King County homeless students represent a lower percentage of the total student population in the county. The percentage in King County is 1.4 percent, which is lower than all but five other counties in Washington state, according to the Committee to End Homelessness' website.

"We have many great organizations, such as the Kiwanis Club of Kent and the Kent Food Bank, that provide lunches and school supplies to our homeless children," Gongora-Knight said. "We try to do all we can to help them out of their situation."

In order for a child to receive the help from the district, they must send in an application proving they fall into the McKinney-Vento Act criteria. The act defines homeless children as, "those who lack a fixed, regular income and adequate nighttime residence."

This includes children sharing housing due to economic hardship or lack of housing and children living in motels, trailers, cars or sleeping outside.

"Our goal is to end their homelessness," Gongora-Knight said. "It's a work in progress, but the biggest thing we can do is provide awareness to our schools' teachers and staff members."

For the Kent School District, homeless information is confidential, so teachers don't know if they have a homeless student in their room or not. Teachers are encouraged to talk to district staff if they suspect a student might be homeless.

Signs include, lack of focus, behavior issues, low test scores and a significant number of absences. Studies show homeless children have far more health problems than other children, including asthma and emotional disturbances, Gongora-Knight said.

"Usually, these children are embarrassed; they don't want the other kids to learn about their situation," Gongora-Knight said. "This prevents many of them from coming to us and getting the help they need."

The most common case of homelessness the district has seen is runaway or abandoned students.

"They are staying in abandoned houses and camping out in the woods," Gongora-Knight said. "They are stressed out, living in fear and don't know what to do."

The district works hard to be a safe haven for these children.

"We want them to feel protected and cared for at school and we want them to feel comfortable coming to get help," Gongora-Knight said. "We want them to know what resources are out there for them."

Students in this situation can talk to their school counselor to receive information or contact the someone from the district's Student Support Services Division at 253-373-7099.

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