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Leavitt, Caldier introduce bill to help foster and homeless college students

Lawmakers have introduced legislation to expand a pilot program that provides housing support to students who were in the foster system or are experiencing homelessness as they attend college in Washington. 

The bill, sponsored by Reps. Mari Leavitt (D-University Place) and Michelle Caldier (R-Port Orchard), builds on an existing pilot program which was approved by the legislature in 2019. The pilot, known as the Supporting Students Experiencing Homelessness program, currently has eight colleges participating, including four-year, community and technical colleges, following an expansion approved during the 2021 legislative session. 

It requires participating colleges to provide accommodations for students, including access to laundry facilities and showers, reduced-price meals, short-term housing or housing assistance, and case management services. Under the proposed bill, this program would be available to all community, technical and four-year colleges across the state. 

“This provides opportunities across our state to make sure that we’re helping students to be retained and to be successful,” Leavitt said. 

The program helps stabilize students, and allows them to become financially secure as they earn degrees. Youth experiencing homelessness are less than one-third as likely to be enrolled in a four-year college as those with stable housing, according to Chapin Hall’s Voices of Youth Count. Those enrolled often face additional barriers to graduating. 

For Caldier, who herself spent time in the foster system and who is a foster parent, the program provides needed support for students. While there was some opposition to the initial pilot program bill, last session’s expansion earned more support, especially among key Republican lawmakers. For the current bill, Caldier said her colleagues in Olympia have been supportive.  

“It’s so far been very positive,” she said. “I don’t anticipate much pushback on this, and hopefully this will pass without any issues, especially in a short session.” 

South Puget Sound Community College was one of the first colleges to be selected for the pilot program. It launched in March 2020, right as the COVID-19 pandemic was launching and the need was apparent. 

“A lot of them came in and just lost their jobs, lost their homes, because they couldn’t pay rent,” said Lehualani Keka, case manager with the college’s Student Life department. 

Of the roughly 40 students that Keka works with, a majority are single mothers who are returning to school, many of who are in their mid-20s to early 30s, along with adults in their 40s. A key part of the work at the college is not only helping with housing, but wraparound services like job security, health services, and academic support. 

Leavitt said data from the college’s pilot program shows that the retention level for former foster students participating in their housing program was higher than their average population. The benefits also extend to the state as a whole, she said, when students are able to earn a degree. 

“You need to have some level of post-secondary education in order to impact your earning potential and have family-wage jobs,” Leavitt said. 

More graduates could also help address the workforce shortage the state is experiencing, Leavitt said. The total price for the program, if approved, would be about $3 million a year, and could be implemented at 34 campuses across Washington. 

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