What kind of city do I want to live in? I’ve been asking myself this question a lot as our region has grown at a breakneck pace. Can I live in a city of Ikea knock off condos if it ensures density? Will I welcome throngs of newcomers if they make Seattle more diverse? Do I believe waves of new money will lift us up or leave us behind?
Until last week I had not asked myself “Can I live in a place that cannot house all of its children?”
Because while I’ve focused my anxiety on the tech economy, traffic and rising rents in my own central Seattle neighborhood, a little school less than a dozen miles away in Tukwila has been struggling to ensure that a growing population of needy kids has shoes, food and a bed.
“We have halal for our Muslim students…vegetarian for our vegetarian students,” explains Kimberly Goodman, Thorndyke Elementary’s Social Worker, gesturing towards brightly colored bins of food donations.
Goodman, along with a handful of volunteers from the community, are spending a Thursday morning packing backpacks full of non perishables so students will have food to eat over the weekend. The culturally sensitive meals are necessary in a school where half the students are English Language Learners.
The program, entirely volunteer run, is new. Just another way to try and address growing need in a school where the majority of the students are living in poverty and almost twenty percent are homeless or experiencing housing insecurity.
And while Thorndyke has long been a poor area, says Tukwila School District Family Support Coordinator Kathleen Gantz, new housing trends have pushed the school of 416 students to the brink.
“We are in a low income community already so we deal with a whole lot…” says Gantz, “But now we’re dealing with ‘Where am I going to sleep tonight?’”
Gantz says the Tukwila School District has seen homelessness increase “drastically” in recent years — from 48 in 2010 to over 200 in 2012. So far this year 328 students are classified as homeless or housing insecure in the district. Seventy-eight of those kids attend Thorndyke.
Gantz and Goodman say there are many reasons for the increase. Some of it can be blamed on the recession; some of it is a result of better practices in counting and classifying kids as homeless. But most of the recent increase is due to housing —specifically rising rents creeping outwards from the Seattle city limits.
“The most recent family that I spoke with… is a two parent two child family. Dad is working, mom is working part-time [and] I think the rent was raised two to three hundred dollars,” says Goodman, “It was like ‘By the end of the month this is your new rent.’”
Additionally Goodman says many landlords in the area have stopped taking government issued housing vouchers now that they can easily rent once hard to fill apartments.
These rent increases are devastating to families who are living paycheck to paycheck, and it often means months or even years of housing insecurity as they try to save money for relocation.
And while some new immigrant families are more easily absorbed by relatives and extended communities, they also face specific challenges — like the time an undocumented family told Goodman their landlord was threatening to report them to immigration if they didn’t pay him more money.
To try and address these needs Thorndyke has developed special programs. In addition to the food backpacks they have clothing swaps, family job fairs and housing info sessions. They’ve even developed strategies for repairing worn out shoes (duct tape works best says Goodman).
They do their best — and it’s pretty amazing — but the struggle takes a toll.
“They’re constantly in change and turmoil,” says Gantz describing the challenges some students face, “When kids experience that amount of stress, a torn piece of paper might put them over the edge.”
A place where little kids are constantly scared they won’t have enough to eat or a safe place to sleep is not the kind of place I want to live in.
But if I have to, I am really grateful people like Gantz and Goodman live here too.