Before Jordan Meredith moved into the Oak Harbor School District, caring for his mother often took precedence over going to class.
Meredith, a middle schooler at the time, and his mother and sister were in a house of their own in Darrington, Wash., thanks to Snohomish-based nonprofit Housing Hope, after a year of bouncing between hotels. But Meredith’s living situation was still far from stable.
“I basically took care of my mom. She was sick a lot,” he said. With his mom in bed unable to work many days, household management tasks often fell to Meredith.
He remembered one day when the toilet in the family’s house overflowed, flooding the hallway. Meredith had to stay home from middle school to clean the house and prevent the rising toilet water from spilling over again until a plumber could make it over to the house that evening.
With his household in chaos, Meredith’s grades suffered.
“I just did horrible. I didn’t know any math, no sciences, no nothing,” he said. “It’s just hard to focus on anything, especially going to school, because all I was thinking about was home.”
Meredith’s situation is not unique. He is one of more than 400 children and youth on Whidbey Island considered unstably housed, qualifying them for federal aid through the McKinney-Vento program.
The McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act is a federal law that ensures children and youth experiencing homelessness or housing instability have the same access to public education as other students.
Qualifying kids’ housing situations can take many forms. They may be living in hotels or shelters, out of their cars or on the streets. They may be couch-surfing, doubling up with friends or extended family members or living in substandard housing that is unsafe or lacking necessary amenities. They may be unaccompanied youth, meaning they do not live with a parent or legal guardian.
Meredith has met several of these criteria at various points in his life. After three years at the Housing Hope residence, Meredith’s mother was incarcerated, and he and his sister went to live with their grandparents in Darrington. They moved to Oak Harbor, joined by Meredith’s aunt and cousin, after their Darrington house suffered multiple rat infestations.
For Meredith and other students who qualify as McKinney-Vento, their school and extracurricular fees are waived. The program also provides qualifying students with access to a whole host of resources they may need, including food, personal hygiene products, clothes, transportation, school supplies, equipment for extracurricular activities, caps and gowns for graduating seniors, prom attire and connections to other community resources.
There are approximately 450 kids currently receiving aid from McKinney-Vento programs in Whidbey school districts, though with that number gradually increasing, it is likely there are still others who would qualify but have not yet been identified or come forward for help.
In Oak Harbor School District, the number of qualifying students was 233 at the beginning of May, up from 218 in mid-April. In South Whidbey School District, there are 111 qualifying students from 76 families.
In Coupeville School District, despite being the smallest district on the island, the number of McKinney-Vento students is comparable to that of South Whidbey School District at around 120. Arianna Bumgarner, the McKinney-Vento liaison for Coupeville schools, said the district has always been slightly on the high side when it comes to unstably housed students, and the number of qualifying students has been rising every year since she joined the district in 2019. Like Oak Harbor, Coupeville also saw an unusually steep increase recently, with 6 more qualifying students being identified last week alone.
Though an increase in the number of McKinney-Vento students may represent kids or families facing new housing instability, it is also likely that these students were already living in qualifying situations but had not come forward.
Identifying kids living in unstable housing situations, or those without homes at all, can be tricky for several reasons, Bumgarner said. Many students, especially older ones, will often try to keep up appearances so as not to reveal their living situation to their peers. They might be well-groomed and well-dressed, make good grades and participate in extracurricular activities, all the while living out of a shelter or a vehicle.
“It makes you definitely learn not to judge books by the cover,” said one McKinney-Vento student from Oak Harbor, who wished to remain anonymous.
She and her family have come close to homelessness several times, she said, and they do not always have power at the house where they now live due to difficulties paying utility bills. She did not always have food, school supplies or hygiene products available, either.
“I try to come off as a well put together person,” she said. “Of course, I have my off days, but it’s made me realize, okay, if I have all this going on, and no one knows, then I’m sure other people do, too.”
Another reason it can be difficult to identify McKinney-Vento students is that kids or their family members feel uncomfortable asking for help. Bumgarner said that she has seen many students struggle to ask for or accept even basic needs such as food.
Discomfort with expressing needs is a common problem among this population of kids. Oak Harbor McKinney-Vento liaison Nadine Cushway said some students she has worked with who have moved in with friends or neighbors won’t ask for things they need to avoid burdening the people they’re staying with.
Cushway recalled one student who would not leave her bedroom at all in an effort to make herself as unobtrusive as possible to the people who had taken her in. She didn’t even feel comfortable venturing out for a snack if she was hungry.
“They are so conscious of their situation and of burdening others that it stagnates them,” Cushway said. “That’s a horrible way to feel.”
The discomfort is especially prevalent for personal or intimate needs. For example, Bumgarner said she has had a hard time getting young teen girls to accept menstrual hygiene products or bras from the program.
“I think girls at this age, a lot of them are just like, ‘I don’t want to talk to you about that. I don’t want to tell you that I have that need,’” she said.
For others, when a family takes them in, they may be living with structure and rules for the first time in their lives, which can be a hard adjustment for many kids and teens. Many McKinney-Vento students come from families in turmoil, Cushway said; substance abuse, severe mental illness or argumentative household relationships can all create the kind of family dysfunction that often goes hand-in-hand with homelessness.
Mary, another McKinney-Vento student in Oak Harbor, moved to Whidbey Island from Virginia around three months ago. Mary, who wished to be identified by her first name only, said she had to leave her family situation because it wasn’t safe for her to be there any longer.
Back in Virginia, Mary had to drop out of high school to work full time. When her long-distance boyfriend of two years offered for her to live with his grandparents in Oak Harbor, she accepted the chance to reclaim opportunities she had lost to her dysfunctional family environment.
“Coming here, I have an actual chance to graduate, which I didn’t think I had,” she said. “So I’m back in high school, which is really good. And now I can go to college, and start the life that I knew I could have.”
The McKinney-Vento program, which Mary has access to as an unaccompanied youth, has helped her pay for groceries and a prom dress. The assistance has relieved Mary of the burdens of adulthood she was bearing prematurely.
“In my last situation before I came here, I was kind of surviving. Like, I had to do what I had to do to help me and my siblings,” she said. “But now I can kind of breathe and just be a teenager.”
For other families, a wildly unaffordable housing market has forced them to make due with substandard accommodations.
Mary Michell, the McKinney-Vento liaison for South Whidbey schools, said the number of South Whidbey McKinney-Vento students living in trailers or RVs has seen a sharp increase recently; when she first began working as South Whidbey School District’s McKinney-Vento liaison a decade ago, this group only accounted for around three families. Now, closer to 15 families in the district are living in trailers or RVs.
“The price of housing has gotten really crazy,” she said.
The dearth of affordable housing has even forced families out of the school district. Last year, 40 families left South Whidbey School District because they could not afford to live in the area anymore, Michell said.
COVID-19 only exacerbated the ongoing housing crisis. Bumgarner said she has worked with several families in which the parents lost their jobs because of the pandemic and have been struggling to afford housing since.
With island housing so unaffordable, unaccompanied youth are especially at risk of living on the streets if they do not have a friend or family member to stay with, Cushway said, because Whidbey Island does not have any overnight shelters for teenagers under 18.
Children, youth or families who think they may qualify for McKinney-Vento assistance can reach out to their respective school district’s liaison.
For Meredith, who is now a sophomore at Oak Harbor High School, the McKinney-Vento program has made a massive difference. The program provided him with a trombone and a suit for band concerts, and he is now a member of the wind ensemble, the high school’s top band. The program also paid for him to take driver’s education classes and supplied him with new clothes as needed.
As he enjoys improved housing stability and access to necessary resources, his grades have improved in turn, and he has developed an aptitude for science. Next year, McKinney-Vento will pay the fees for Meredith to take AP biology. After high school, Meredith wants to study astrobiology, a field that involves determining whether other planets can sustain life.
“The people from McKinney-Vento — they’ve helped me as soon as they can,” he said. “I love this school. This school is the best school I’ve ever been to.”