A young girl and her classmates work on computers in a classroom.
Maria Rivera/AP

In Tacoma, Washington, and other U.S. cities, housing departments are collaborating with school districts to give low-income and homeless students a leg up.

A year and a half ago, Tanisha Barden of Tacoma, Washington, found herself going through a divorce and without a place to live. She and her three young children moved in with her mother, but it wasn’t a good situation. “Other family members were living there, too,” she says. “There were 13 people in a three-bedroom house.”

Barden had heard about a Tacoma Housing Authority (THA) initiative, the McCarver Elementary School Housing Assistance Program, that provides rental assistance to homeless families with children enrolled in kindergarten, first, or second grade at the school. Barden’s daughters were in kindergarten and second grade, so she signed up. (Her son was an infant at the time.)

Barden chose her apartment and began paying most of the rent. She currently pays 20 percent of the $1,200 due each month, and for the next three years she’ll add an additional 20 percent each year. To continue receiving the assistance, she’ll need to keep her children enrolled at McCarver for the duration. She must also participate actively in her kids’ education, such as by attending PTA meetings and reading to them, and invest in her own education and job training. A caseworker works with Barden to keep things on track.

McCarver Elementary is located in the low-income (but now gentrifying) Tacoma neighborhood of Hilltop. The school’s turnover rate has historically been extremely high due to homelessness. In 2006, the figure was 179 percent, meaning that each classroom desk had three different students assigned to it over the course of the school year. The situation has improved in the past decade, in part due to the THA program.

Barden says her older daughter loves the school, and her younger daughter is getting the speech therapy and writing help she needs. Barden recently received her high school diploma and is now looking to study to become a nurse. “The program is helping me achieve my goals,” she says. “If it didn’t exist, I’d probably still be living with my mom and wouldn’t have gotten my diploma.”

The McCarver program is one of several that fall under the Tacoma Housing Authority’s “Education Project,” in which THA teams up with Tacoma Public Schools and Tacoma Community College with the goal of improving school outcomes for low-income and homeless young people, as well as helping their parents succeed as wage earners.

“Children who grow up in deep poverty bring challenges to the classroom that the fanciest facility with the best-trained teacher cannot overcome,” says Michael Mirra, THA’s executive director. “Housing instability is at the top of that list of challenges.”

Other THA initiatives include the College Bound Scholarship Enrollment Program, which strives to enroll the students THA houses in a Washington State fund that grants low-income children some state college tuition if they have at least a 2.0 GPA. Because many eligible families were unaware of the program—or that children must enroll before they reach the end of eighth grade—they weren’t applying for the benefit or were applying too late, and their kids were missing the opportunity.

And THA’s Tacoma Community College Housing Project houses up to 25 homeless community college students and their dependents during enrollment (up to three years), with the condition that the recipient makes progress toward their degree.

Mirra says such programs only work when housers and schools are dedicated to collaborating for an extended period of time. “When you invest in children, it’s a long-term bet,” he says. “Organizations need to make such initiatives part of their core mission, or they won’t have the stamina to see them through.” Housing authorities and school districts can also work together by establishing performance metrics and sharing data. Liaisons, such as housing caseworkers who are also on a school’s staff, administer the programs day-to-day.

Such initiatives aren’t just happening in Tacoma. Similar programs have cropped up in the last few years in cities like New Haven, Connecticut; Akron, Ohio; and San Antonio, Texas, though the Pacific Northwest—and Tacoma in particular—has been the trendsetter. Abra Lyons-Warren of the Council of Large Public Housing Authorities says that cities are increasingly buying into the idea that housing can be used as a springboard to improve a variety of life outcomes, from mental and physical health to education.

“Housing authorities have access to low-income families that other systems don’t,” says Lyons-Warren. “At a minimum, they’re meeting with families once a year for the recertification process.” THA, for instance, has spurred families to sign up for the College Bound Scholarship Enrollment Program by simply adding the application to the annual forms parents already fill out.

Instead of adding to annual spending, THA funds the programs by reallocating its customary federal allotment. “We would be spending these housing dollars anyway, housing people,” says Mirra. Money for case workers and other staff, as well as third-party evaluations, do make a dent in Mirra’s budget. “This is where the money challenges come in,” he says. “Currently grants from foundations, as well as some of our own funds, pay for those services.”

External evaluation is key to discerning whether these funds are being well spent. So far, the results are encouraging. In the first four years of the McCarver program, the school’s annual turnover rate decreased from 114 percent to 82 percent, reading scores for enrolled children went up by 33 percent, and the average earned income of enrolled families doubled. And after one year, 95 percent of the students in the Tacoma Community College Housing Project remained enrolled, compared to 24 percent of the 146 eligible students THA could not serve. The recipients had an average GPA of 3.05—higher than the average for all students, 2.96.

Mirra says such results have spurred THA and its educational partners to look into expanding the initiatives, such as by instituting a program like the one at McCarver in other area public schools in need. “We’re eager to do this on a larger scale,” he says. “We are dedicated to improving outcomes for parents, but emphatically so about educational outcomes for children, because we do not wish them to need our housing when they grow up.”

Indeed, for beneficiaries like Barden, such initiatives change the course of lives—her children’s as well as her own. “I used to feel like I’d go one step forward and then two steps back,” Barden says. “I’m finding a way to do things now.”

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