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Jacob was homeless for more than two years.  Now he's in technical school and high school in Mount Vernon. Photo by Phyllis Fletcher.

Jacob was homeless for more than two years. Now he's in technical school and high school in Mount Vernon. Photo by Phyllis Fletcher.


Homeless In Mount Vernon

Phyllis Fletcher

Mount Vernon is a town on I–5 between Seattle and Bellingham.

Ann Klitzke–Nelson: "Our economy has shifted. And I think that families have been significantly impacted by that."

That's Ann Klitzke–Nelson. She's a counselor at Madison Elementary in Mount Vernon, Washington. She says the economy is one reason the number of homeless children there quadrupled during the recession. Federal law says the school district has to identify those kids and give them extra help.

This is part two of "Paramount Duty," our series on children, parents, teachers and the recession. KUOW's Phyllis Fletcher reports.


People have different explanations about why more kids are homeless now in Mount Vernon. Ann Klitze–Nelson can think of a few reasons.

Klitze–Nelson: "Some families have been put in foreclosure situations. I think some families are finding they can't manage their rents. Family members have lost jobs."

Another reason her school district is counting more homeless kids is that they're just better at it. Ann does outreach and meets with kids to figure out where they live and if they need extra help.

Mount Vernon has over 200 homeless students. A student is considered homeless if they're living with another family because their parents can't afford their own place; or if they're in a hotel, motel or campground; or if they're living on the streets.

Jacob: "My dad started drinking a lot and then he got a DUI and went to prison, and that summer was the summer that I became homeless."

Rae: "My mom went to the mental hospital, my stepdad kicked me out and I was living in the car."

That was Jacob and Rae. Both of them used to be homeless in Mount Vernon. And other places. Mount Vernon was a town they ended up in for different reasons, but they say they stayed because they actually got help there.

Rae gave me a tour. She showed me Tanya, her 1994 Chevy Corsica.

Rae: "I swear there's primordial soup in the front. It leaks water, so it's, like, moldy all over the place. I had to do my homework 'cause I started school and we were still kinda living in the car. So I had to do my homework in this car a couple times, like, before it got all rainy or before I went to school sometimes."

Rae has lived on the street and in her car in Omak, Seattle and Mount Vernon. She says something special about Mount Vernon kept her there.

Rae: "People don't give you the look."

The look.

Rae: "Like, I know anybody and everybody knows — the judgment look."

Like, what's wrong with you?

Rae: "Get a job. I can do it. You can, too."

But Rae says she didn't get that so bad in Mount Vernon. She even showed me a restaurant that goes out of its way for the homeless.

Rae: "They close it down for normal customers and open it up for the homeless people. And they serve dinner the last four days of every single month. Dude, it's like, the best freakin' free meal you'll ever eat, I swear to God."

She says she has seen more help for the homeless in Mount Vernon than anywhere else she's been.

School districts have to help homeless kids under federal law. Eric Holl is one of the people who makes sure kids get that help. Part of his job is to literally find kids who've had trouble staying in school through friends or knowing where they hang out. He says he's kind of like a bounty hunter.

Phyllis Fletcher: "Do you ever see a student running away from you?"

Holl: "Sometimes. There are some occasions where I've seen a student on the street or even down the hall at a school that I've been trying to connect with, and once they see me they'll definitely turn the other way or pretend that they didn't see me and just try to avoid me. But the important part for me, though, is making contact with that student."

He works with about 10 students who are homeless right now.

Fletcher: "Where are they staying?"

Holl: "Some will stay at the Oasis Teen Shelter up here in Mount Vernon. Others are simply staying with friends, couchsurfing. Others will camp in the woods; really, wherever they feel comfortable. A lot of kids don't feel comfortable in shelters."

Jacob was like that. He says his father raised him to have a distrust of the government. That includes Child Protective Services (CPS), school systems and other agencies that try to help. He learned that shelters would call CPS if he stayed more than three days, so he didn't.

Jacob spent almost two years homeless in Oregon and Washington, but most of the time he was in Mount Vernon.

Fletcher: "Who were you with?"

Jacob: "Myself and I. No one."

Fletcher: "Where would you stay?"

Jacob: "Shelters, sometimes. Under bridges, which is really cliche I guess, but that's really a good shelter. Sometimes I'd have a tarp."

Fletcher: "How old were you during that time?"

Jacob: "13 1/2 to nearly 16. I was homeless for so long with my dad, that's all I really knew."

In Mount Vernon, Jacob got in trouble with the law. His probation officer hooked him up with Eric Holl and his program. Now, Jacob goes to technical school for culinary arts and he's enrolled in Burlington–Edison High School to get his diploma.

Federal law compels school districts to find students like Rae and Jacob, enroll them and help them with school supplies and transportation, and the Mount Vernon School District didn't get any money from the federal government to pay for that.

Klitze–Nelson: "It's a travesty that there's no funding for it. While we understand its importance and we will continue to do everything we can to help these children, it is a financial hardship for districts."

The federal government gives some money to states to help serve homeless kids, but the feds make districts compete for it even though every district has to comply with the law. Mount Vernon is part of the vast majority in Washington state last year that got nothing, and during the recession the number of homeless kids in the state grew to 22,000.

Ann says Mount Vernon and nearby school districts find ways to collaborate to keep expenses down.

Klitze–Nelson: "In some cases, it will be one district that transports the student in the morning and the other district transports the student home. In some cases, it's, we meet at a county line or we split the difference. That's been a real blessing. Nobody's trying to get out of their responsibility. Everybody's trying to work together to see what they can do for the best of the student."

Rae says she worried about those things too. Is the bus going to come? What time? How long will it take to get back to the shelter today? Where can I do my homework?

Rae: "I would just be like, I have to just worry about this, 'cause if I worry about that, I won't get what I need done, done. When I would worry about getting home, I'd be like, no, I gotta worry about school because I have to worry about that later, 'cause I can't worry about that now. You just gotta put it aside. You have to compartmentalize."

Jacob says now he can trust government agencies and people who are trying to help. His sounds like he can't believe it when he says that, but he feels lucky.

Jacob: "To be given the chance to have a normal life. Like, have a great family, great people in my life. I just feel like that's all you could ask for."

Jacob and Rae both got help from the Oasis Teen Shelter in Mount Vernon. Rae has a GED and a high school diploma. Jacob will be a senior next year. He can keep working on his diploma in the public school system until he's 21.

Tomorrow, we go to the Highline School District south of Seattle. Teachers at a high–poverty school in Burien started a homework club on their own time to keep kids from falling behind and test scores show it's working.

I'm Phyllis Fletcher, KUOW News.

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