Editor's Note: This story is the first in a two-part series about Mason County's homeless youth.
Shelton teenager Brenden Pippins found nighttime shelter from the rain huddled inside cardboard recycling bins behind Evergreen Landscaping and Fred Meyer.
Homeless at 18, Jesse Dowty occasionally slept in a tent in the trees behind Les Schwab on Olympic Highway North. “It was freezing cold, and loud,” he said. “It’s a two-minute walk from the freeway.”
KeAndra Radchenko’s mother, who was addicted to meth and other drugs, forced Radchenko as a child to clean and feed her two younger sisters. Radchenko ran away to the streets of Olympia at age 12, then to downtown Seattle a year later before returning to on-and-off homelessness in Shelton at age 16.
In February, Radchenko (below) earned her high school diploma at CHOICE Alternative School’s midyear graduation ceremony. As the graduating class speaker, she eloquently shared her struggles. Today, she owns a diploma, but has no home.
Radchenko and Pippins — partners for three years— recently spent a few days sleeping at her grandmother’s crowded house, but they might have to return to their car on the streets of downtown Shelton.
“There’s no place to go,” Pippins said. “You get in trouble for staying in the parks, you get in trouble for staying in the woods, you get in trouble for staying on the benches. We can’t hang around anywhere without being harassed.”
‘We just can’t afford you’
The Shelton School District tracks homeless youths in order to receive federal money for programs that serve them. For the 2012-2013 school year, the district counted 374 homeless children and youths; 38 were high school juniors, 62 were seniors. Nearly 14 percent of the seniors at Shelton last year were homeless.
Students often say they’ve been kicked out of their houses, said Wayne Massie (below), superintendent of the Shelton School District.
“You get that feeling it’s, ‘Gosh, we just can’t afford you anymore. You’re on your own,’” he said. The district collects clothes for homeless teens, and stores them in the rafters of the school district headquarters at 700 S 1st Street.
Often perceived as a more significant issue in the state's urban centers, statistics from Washington's Superintendent of Public Instruction show the highest percentages of youth homelessness are in the state's rural depressed communities. With 9 percent of its students homeless, Shelton School District's homeless rate is three times the state average of just under 3 percent. Seattle Public Schools had 2,370 homeless students, or a little less than 5 percent of its total student population.
Statewide, more than 30,000 students were homeless in the 2012-2013 school year. Over the past five years, the number of homeless students in Washington schools increased by a staggering 47 percent.
The problem is national: A record 1.1 million students attending public schools in the United States were homeless in 2013, according to the U.S. Department of Education. The number of homeless students increased 10 percent from 2012 to 2013, rising from 1,065,794 to 1,168,354. Forty-three states reported increases.
Of the 374 homeless students attending Shelton schools in 2012-2013:
• 87 lived in shelters.
• 50 were “unsheltered,” which means they lived in abandoned buildings, campgrounds, vehicles, parks, temporary trailers, FEMA shelters, bus stations, substandard or inadequate housing or on the “street.”
• 3 lived in motels.
• 234 were “doubled up;” meaning, by the federal McKinney-Vento definition of homelessness, young people who live with relatives or friends due to a loss of housing, economic hardship and circumstances that include family turmoil, domestic violence, incarceration, hospitalization and drug or alcohol treatment.
These young people not only have no permanent home, but few places to gather in Shelton. The closest shopping mall is in Olympia. The bowling alley closed. There’s no overnight shelter for teens younger than 18. The armory building, long a gathering place for youths, closed down — and scheduled to reopen as Mason Transit Authority’s Transit-Community Center in January.
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