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Originally published February 8, 2014 at 10:18 PM | Page modified February 9, 2014 at 8:02 AM

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In fight against homelessness, let’s zero in on children

They’ve finally gotten all the kids out of Seattle’s shantytown, which is great news. But more may be on the way.


Seattle Times staff columnist

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The good news first: There are no more kids living at Seattle’s shantytown, the Nickelsville encampment in the Central Area.

“We got the last ones out, finally,” says the woman who set up the camp on South Jackson Street, Sharon Lee of the Low Income Housing Institute.

When she opened the temporary camp, Lee figured it would draw mostly single adults — “hardy people” who are used to camping outside. But she was bowled over when up to 15 kids, some as young as 3, were living there at one time in the fall.

The homeless newspaper Real Change dubbed it “Nickelsville Elementary.” I wrote in December about how kids living in unheated shacks was apparently now accepted in Seattle because a school bus stopped there each day, as if it were just another cul-de-sac.

Plenty of people offered to help with clothing or supplies, which was much appreciated. But it wasn’t what these kids needed most: a heated place to sleep.

It took awhile — eight weeks since then — but all the kids finally have shelter of some sort. Thanks to financial donations — including $3,000 from Seahawks offensive lineman J.R. Sweezy that he earmarked “for the kids at Nickelsville” — all the kids have been moved into motels, family shelters or subsidized apartments.

One father of a 4-year-old got help moving into an RV park. Last week two more families showed up — one with an 8-year-old, one with a 4-year-old — but both received emergency motel vouchers and got out of the cold.

So something seems to be working a bit better, for now. Most of these kids remain technically homeless, since they still don’t have stable housing. But it was shocking that in a city as rich as Seattle we had kids living in a dirt camp, in winter, right in the middle of town.

By comparison, much was made of the powerful New York Times series in December, “Invisible Child,” about an 11-year-old girl living with her family in a decrepit, mice-infested New York City shelter. As deplorable as that is, as I read it I kept thinking at least they have heat and electricity.

While “Nickelsville Elementary” is thankfully no more, the phenomenon may be getting worse. I said there was good news, and now here’s the bad: On Friday the state released its annual accounting of how many homeless students there are in public schools. The new data suggest an epidemic.

Statewide 30,609 kids in grades K-12 were homeless last year — meaning that at some point they doubled-up on a friend’s couch, lived in a shelter or in truly desperate “unsheltered” conditions such as in a car or under a bridge. The total is up 12 percent from the year before, and up 64 percent from five years ago.

Locally, Seattle schools counted 2,370 homeless students — 26 percent more than the year before.

Some of these increases may be due to schools getting better at identifying who is homeless, as kids try to hide it due to the stigma. But the data also is yet more evidence that something is fraying at the bottom of boomtown.

Despite all the plans to end homelessness, last year 1,254 students statewide were at some point living outside without heat or plumbing (basically Nickelsville Elementary, or worse).

“There’s the chronic homeless, but what we’re seeing now are mostly families that got foreclosed on or who lost a job and then couldn’t pay the rent,” Lee said. “Even in a city the size of Seattle, we’re still only talking a few hundred families with kids needing shelter. We ought to be able to solve this.”

The plans to end all homelessness tried to do too much. It’s time for triage. Scale them back and focus on this for 2014: No child left outside.

Danny Westneat’s column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or dwestneat@seattletimes.com



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About Danny Westneat

Danny Westneat takes an opinionated look at the Puget Sound region's news, people and politics. Send tips or comments to dwestneat@seattletimes.com. His column runs Wednesday and Sunday.
dwestneat@seattletimes.com | 206-464-2086

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