By Jonathan Houston, Equal Opportunity Schools, former Tukwila School District, WA liaison
“This was not supposed to happen to me.” That was the first thought that went through my mind during my first year as a McKinney-Vento liaison. I finally had a decent job and began to progress toward my professional career in providing equity. I was the guy who was supposed to help everybody else…but homelessness was not supposed to happen to me.
They say denial is the first step in the road to recovery. At that time, I found myself without housing and living in a hotel. My newly formed blended-family of six was supposed to find a three-bedroom house that would accommodate us all, and perhaps another child. Instead, we had to put up a sheet to split the extended stay room that was like a studio. Boys on the floor, my step daughter on one bed, and me and my wife on the other bed. Being in such a tight space forced us to confront the worst parts of each other. How could healthy growth occur in such an environment? Perhaps that is why the first pregnancy miscarried in the hotel bathroom. Again, I thought, “this is not supposed to happen to me.”
However, if homelessness is not supposed to happen to me, then who is it supposed to happen to? Before that first night in the hotel, I would proclaim advocacy with my mouth. I would profess that homelessness can happen to anyone. But when I was forced to confront the real reality, I was the first to reject the surreal experience. After that first night in the hotel, I began to realize the hard truth of homelessness. The sight of kids playing in the parking lot of a sketchy hotel (because that is their playground) woke me to the truth. I remember looking in shock as I watched kids leave their bikes in the parking lot with more acceptance of their situation then I was comfortable to lend.
With my income and discomfort with this living arrangement, I anxiously determined not to remain a resident. But it was clear to me that the children I saw playing had an aesthetic resilience that allowed them to normalize what I felt was not fitting to happen to me.
However, the question remains: if homelessness wasn’t supposed to happen to me, why should it happen to them?
Editor’s Note: Under Jonathan’s leadership, the graduation rate for students experiencing homelessness at the Tukwila School District rose to 75% – several points higher than the overall district average, and 20 points higher than the state graduation rate for students experiencing homelessness (52.1%). Jonathan helped implement a robust campaign to identify and support families and youth who qualify for McKinney-Vento services, including a dropout/re-engagement specialist at the high school who personally tracks down any student who stops coming to school; a focus on early-warning indicators, such as low attendance or slipping grades, to trigger wrap-around services for a student before he or she falls too far behind; and staff check-ins in with students who are struggling socially, academically, or physically.
Jonathan has moved to a new position at Equal Opportunity Schools, but we are thrilled that he will continue to contribute his insights to SchoolHouse Connection as an Advisory Board member.