By Sami Edge, Idaho Education News

Word on the Street, Edition 16

Caption: Raymond Cook, 16, poses for a portrait in front of Nampa High school. Before his family found an apartment this year, Cook was one of thousands of Idaho students experiencing homelessness, a struggle that’s been exacerbated by the state’s surging home prices. Sami Edge/Idaho Education News.

Editor’s Note: Raymond Cook died unexpectedly in November, after this story was first published online. The story is printed here with his father’s permission.

NAMPA — Raymond Cook kept his backpacks packed and stowed on his bunk at Nampa’s Salvation Army family homeless shelter, not sure when his family’s time there might run out.

The 150-square-foot room that he shared with four sisters and his dad had been home, if that’s what you’d call it, off and on for nine months. The six of them shared two bunk beds, a wardrobe, and an old TV they’d picked up from a friend.

Rodney Cook, Raymond’s dad, had been trying for years to find a Nampa apartment they could afford on his wage of $14.25 an hour as a full-time bus driver. Raymond picked up a job on his 16th birthday to try to help.

On sleepless nights, Raymond would lie on his top bunk and stare at the shelter ceiling, wondering how long he’d have that view. The shelter, meant to be a three-month stay, had extended the Cooks’ room on a monthly basis; but each day was one day closer to an eventual move-out deadline.

Was he doing enough to help his family find housing? Raymond worried.

What if his family was still homeless when he turned 18 — would he have to split from his sisters if he was no longer a minor in the family shelter?

“My dad says we’re going to be in a place soon, but what if we’re not?” Raymond said in August. “That’s what he said when we first moved here — and it’s been two years.”

At last count, more than 7,300 of Idaho’s K-12 students were experiencing homelessness amid the COVID-19 pandemic and an affordable housing crisis that has spread across the state.

This impacts education. Kids with unstable housing can struggle to get to school, or to focus in class with competing outside stressors. Far fewer homeless students meet state expectations on standardized tests compared to their peers, and data shows that gap widened during the pandemic.

The federal government gave out new funds to school districts this year, to try to help homeless youth recover academically from the pandemic. But the funds don’t pay for families’ most desperate need: stable housing.

Homeless education coordinators, called McKinney-Vento liaisons, are seeing working families priced out of their homes across the state. And once a family becomes homeless, it’s getting increasingly difficult to find a new place. Competition is stiff for affordable rentals with dozens of applicants, and years-long waiting lists.

“It is crisis level. There’s just no question about it,” said Natalie Sandoval, a homeless education coordinator in Nampa. “And I don’t see an end in the near future.”

Families are reporting heightened need

It’s hard to say whether Idaho is seeing more homeless youth, but between pandemic illnesses, learning disruptions and the housing market boom, educators worry their situations are getting more “intense.”

The statewide count of homeless K-12 students dropped during the 2020-21 school year, though state officials assume that’s an undercount. School closures and virtual learning made it harder for educators to connect with families experiencing homelessness, even as the pandemic wrought new economic and housing emergencies.

At least 450 of the state’s homeless students went missing from Idaho’s enrollment sheets in the fall 2020, after the pandemic hit, said Suzanne Peck, homeless education coordinator for the State Department of Education. She’s seeing more families moving into cars and RV’s and hotel rooms, and has heard more reports of domestic violence and trauma.

“It’s just been worrisome,” Peck said in June. “The calls that I’ve gotten this year have been heightened in their need.”

The Cooks moved to Nampa during the summer of 2019, chasing the promise of work. A friend’s house became the latest stop for the family who left native Tennessee for California after the death of a relative, then struck out for Idaho when California had no jobs.

Rodney signed his kids up for school, found a job, and after a few months started searching for houses across the valley. He and Raymond would comb through housing websites, searching for at least two bedrooms under $900. The prospects were bleak. On some of his calls, Rodney learned he was the 30th person on an apartment waiting list.

In the meantime, Rodney’s kids learned the ropes of yet another school system.

Raymond did the same science projects in Nampa that he’d done in California and in Tennessee, acing his repetitive 9th grade curriculum. He switched to an advanced class sophomore year, and nearly failed.

“I’m not good at science, I had just been doing the same things over and over,” Raymond said. “(Moving districts) goes back and forth between a really good thing, because I’ve already learned it all, or it’s a really bad thing, because I don’t know what’s happening.”

The longer the Cooks’ housing search dragged on, the harder it became. Home prices in Idaho continued to climb through 2019 and then surged in 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. The booming housing market drove more potential homeowners into rentals, and rental prices got steeper.

Rodney considered moving to a more affordable state, but didn’t want to uproot his kids again. He thought about taking a second job, but that meant his five kids would get less time with their single parent.

“I’m just trying to raise my children in a home, and take them to the schools I want to take them to,” Rodney said. “And it’s just out of my reach.”

The hot housing market isn’t just a Treasure Valley problem. Homeless education coordinators from Notus to Idaho Falls report the same lack of affordable options, exacerbated by surging home sales.

“You expect this in Denver, but not in rural Idaho,” said Angie Harker, a McKinney-Vento liaison in American Falls.

When times are good, homeless families can struggle to get an apartment because of poor or missing credit and lack of rental history, Harker said. Now they’re competing with renters who don’t have those issues — “and they don’t stand a chance,” she said.

Most of her unhoused families are working, but can’t find a lease or rental in their income brackets. Families can get housing vouchers from the government to help, but landlords are increasingly picky about accepting that aid.

This data from the State Department of Education details the subtle shift in living situations for McKinney-Vento (homeless) families. In 2020-21 fewer families were “doubled up,” or living with another family, and instead living in hotels or “substandard” housing, which includes a vehicle without utilities.

The majority of Idaho’s homeless students are “doubled up,” or sharing a space with another family. But in the course of the last year, the state has seen more families moving into less stable situations, like hotels, cars, RVs and shelters.

“None of it is ideal, obviously,” said Jessica Baksis, a homeless liaison in Bonneville. “Families are just doing what they can to get by.”

McKinney-Vento liaisons can help connect families to housing assistance, and can help with emergency costs like gas for a family living in a car, or a temporary hotel stay. But they don’t control the rental market.

A school district’s primary responsibility is making sure kids can still access their education, even if their housing situation is in flux. They give out school supplies, clothes and food, and arrange transportation to make sure a student is getting to school.

If a student is bouncing from place to place, a school can be their stability, Peck said.

“We will get kids back to their school of origin, their original school, so that the kids can be with their friends, they can be with the teachers who know them and understand what their circumstance is,” she said.

Academic outcomes lower for unhoused youth

Moving is one of many hurdles that can strain a homeless student’s academic success. Exhaustion, emotional trauma, transportation issues — the challenges stack up. In Idaho, only 60% of homeless youth graduate on time, and less than a third of homeless youth were considered “proficient” on this year’s standardized math and English tests.

Consider Raymond’s challenges during his sophomore year of high school, when a global pandemic was in full swing:

Raymond started the year learning online, a hurdle for students across the state. His family left their friend’s house for a homeless shelter, where he struggled with an internet connection and shared a single room with four younger siblings.

When school resumed in person, so did his hectic schedule.

He took two buses to get to school, one from near the shelter to a different high school, then a transfer bus to Nampa High School. When he got home around 3 p.m., Raymond would help his sisters with their homework before heading to work from 5 p.m. to midnight.

He rushed through his own schoolwork on the bus or in class, managing to keep up, but struggling to retain the lessons he was supposed to learn. He rarely had the time, or transportation, to seek out tutoring after school.

Raymond started falling asleep, and breaking into tears, at school.

“I was so stressed out, and I was worried about my sisters, I was worried about my dad — I was just worried,” he said. Typically an A and B student, Raymond finished the year with his lowest grades ever, including two Ds and a C.

Raymond told some of his teachers about his living situation, usually to explain why he couldn’t afford supplies for class.

He told his peers during an argument last spring.

As Raymond remembers it, his classmates were debating whether students should have to wear masks in school. If students got sick, Raymond thought, schools would close, and he’d have to go back to online classes from the shelter, where his internet connection was so spotty he added more money to his phone’s data plan, just to access class.

“I got irritated and I snapped,” Raymond said.

“My dad works full time, and we’re homeless. We live in the shelter,” he told his class. “I cannot afford to do online classes anymore unless I take away from other things to help us improve as a family. And that’s not fair to my family. It’s not fair to me.”

“What they’re saying about me and my family is wrong”

Raymond tries to shelter his sisters from the stereotypes he hears from his peers, that homeless people are deadbeats and drunks. And he tries to prove them wrong. He doesn’t drink or smoke. He takes care of his siblings and has a job to help pay the bills.

“I want to show people that I can do these things to help, and that what they’re saying about me and my family is wrong, and not fair,” he said.

In his last two years in Nampa, Raymond has built foundations he’s proud of. He ranked highly at a state acting competition last year and is involved in Nampa High School’s theater department. He loves his job at a local restaurant and hopes that someday he can open his own cafe. He’s considering studying psychology in college.

Raymond saved up enough money last year to buy himself a Camry. The car became another refuge at the shelter, a place for his family to sing and cut loose during karaoke parties in the parking lot.

It was in the car, as Raymond prepared to drive to work one day in August, that Rodney broke some news. After two years on the waiting list, their family had been approved for an apartment.

Weeks later, Raymond moved his backpacks from the shelter to his new home. He only shares a bedroom with one sister now. They put fairy lights on the walls to make it more cozy.

“I’m still struggling with accepting the fact that we don’t have to leave,” he said. “Every single day, it’s like — oh yeah, I get to go home now.”