The roster of homeless students in Washington State's K-12 schools reached a whopping 27,390 during the 2011-12 school year, according to the state Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction.
That's up almost 5 percent from the year before and more than 46 percent from 2007-08, when the recession first slammed area families.
"It's heartbreaking," said Nathan Olson, state schools communications manager. "One student homeless is heartbreaking, 27,000 is heartbreaking times 27,000."
The latest number is based on reports of school-district representatives, who submit the number of students who are homeless in their districts to the superintendent's office.
The higher figure stems partly from better reporting, Olson said, because the superintendent's office is working to increase awareness of the issue and connect families to available services.
In recent years, the economic downturn has continued to take its toll.
According to the federal Stewart B. McKinney-Vento Homeless Education Assistance Act, students are considered homeless if they "lack a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence." This includes a broad array of living arrangements: motels, hotels, shelters, cars, public spaces, abandoned buildings, trailer parks, bus or train stations, substandard housing or any other "public or private place not designed for or ordinarily used as a regular sleeping accommodation for human beings."
"It's really a poverty issue more than anything," said Dinah Ladd, who works on the issue for Seattle Public Schools.
She says the ways poverty impacts kids' lives are as varied as the number of students—the housing market, lost jobs, sudden illness, greater severity of needs and lack of shelters are all contributing factors. Substance abuse or mental-health factors might play a role. Some are chronically homeless, Ladd said, whereas others are "just having a hard time."
Some students "double up," meaning they share the housing of others due to economic reasons. Many are transient.
Limited funding and cuts to state programs exacerbate the issue, Ladd said.
According to the superintendent's office, the federal government allocates about $950,000 annually to Washington state to fund resources and programs serving students who are homeless. Those funds are distributed to the various local education agencies through grants.
"We could use more," Olson said, "but it is something."
Of the K-12 students comprising the 2011-12 figure, middle- and high-school students are hardest hit, Ladd said.
"It's becoming more common for families to be homeless as opposed to what people think of as homeless," Ladd said. "It's really families, people with children, [with a] mom and dad, middle-class people slowly finding themselves in that predicament."
The McKinney-Vento Act mandates that students who are homeless have equal opportunity to the same educational opportunities as other students, providing transportation if necessary to keep students at their school of origin and offering them the proper resources to actively stay in school.
Outside of the classroom, students who are homeless face difficult lives.
"Some kids don't know what they're going to eat, where they're going to be," Ladd said. "They have a very uncertain future even with this ability of trying to keep them stable."
According to a 2008 report from the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth and First Focus, children and youth who are homeless are more likely to experience physical, mental and developmental health problems than other children. They are more likely to perform poorly in school, leading to reduced chances of graduation.
While educational measures like McKinney-Vento do help, Ladd said it's not enough to overcome the issue.
"We can do our piece in school with the educational [part], but some of that support needs to come from things that happen after school," Ladd said.
Namely, the lasting stigma against those who are homeless inhibits improvement.
"One thing that I think keeps the situation bad is that there's a lot of discrimination against homeless people," said David Delgado, a case manager at Peace for the Streets by Kids from the Streets in Seattle.
In King County, the Committee to End Homelessness is one group working to end such stigmatization and bring awareness to the problem.
The committee maintains a "Youth and Young Adult Plan to Prevent and End Homelessness" as well as hosts advocacy events and conversations about homelessness.
"I think people are misguided," Ladd said. She cited a misconception that homeless people have to look a certain way, be a certain way, be a certain color.
"They can be educated, they can be going to school."
Sheridan Smalley is a student in the University of Washington Department of Communication News Laboratory