A total of 823 Whatcom County students were homeless last school year, according to the most recent data sent recently to the state Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction.
That total for the 2011-12 school year was just two more than the number of homeless students in the county's public schools reported in the previous year - but well above the pre-recession total of 516 students in the 2006-07 school year.
Whatcom County homeless advocates said they were worried that the number of homeless students wasn't dropping despite signs of a modest economic recovery.
"They've stayed at a high level," said Greg Winter, director of Whatcom Homeless Service Center.
The number of homeless students peaked at 847 in the 2008-09 school year.
Winter wondered if a second wave of family homelessness might be headed this way as unemployment rates continue to stay high, jobless public assistance runs out and people staying with friends or family - known as doubling up - wear out their welcome.
"The safety net just frays to the point of breaking," Winter said, adding that the number of people coming to the center for help has more than doubled in the past six months.
Whether the bump in the number of people turning to the center was being driven by an increase in the number of homeless families or more people learning about the center's services was unknown.
"I suspect it's some combination of the two, but it's hard to tease that out," Winter said.
Whatcom Homeless Service Center in Bellingham has a housing wait list that includes households with more than 250 children - with many living in cars or temporarily in motels using emergency funds provided by the Opportunity Council or local churches.
"We need to find ways to get those kids and their families housed," said Gail de Hoog, housing specialist for the health department. "We have a housing shortage. We need to create more affordable housing."
Student homelessness was highest in Bellingham and Ferndale, the county's largest school districts.
In Bellingham, the number of homeless students grew from 2.3 percent in 2006-07 to more than 4 percent each year beginning in the 2008-09 school year, when the recession started to be felt widely.
There were 427 homeless students in Bellingham last school year.
In Ferndale, the number of homeless students increased from 1 percent in 2006-07 to 2.3 percent last school year, when there were 185 homeless students.
The number of homeless students in Whatcom County's seven school districts came through Whatcom County Readiness to Learn, which is part of a statewide program that helps at-risk students stay in school by stabilizing their lives outside of school.
It works to curb drop-out rates by connecting students and their families to existing social services, including for health care, homelessness and domestic violence.
"If we can keep them in their school, we know they're getting a better chance," said Mary Jo Durborow, coordinator of Whatcom County Readiness to Learn.
Readiness to Learn helps about 1,100 to 1,300 students a year in Whatcom County, most of them in grades K-6. For two years in a row, about two-thirds of them have been homeless, and many of their families are doubled up, according to Durborow.
Part of the reason for the increase is that staff and schools have become better at identifying homeless students, as in Ferndale, she said.
But it's also because the number of homeless students has gone up, according to Durborow, at a time when overall school enrollment has been down.
It's difficult for students to go to school and to concentrate if they're worried about where they will be sleeping at night or how they will be able to do their homework in the car, Durborow said.
"These 820-something kids that we serve are less likely to be successful in school and in life because they don't have stable housing," Durborow said. "Stable housing is a big issue."
AT A GLANCE
Data collected by Whatcom County Readiness to Learn showed 823 homeless students spread among the seven public school districts in Whatcom County during the 2011-12 school year.
Below is a breakout of the number of homeless students compared to the total number of students in each school district.
Bellingham: 427 homeless students out of a total of 10,929 students. That means 3.9 percent of the district's students were homeless.
Blaine: 44 out of a total of 2,194 - or 2 percent.
Ferndale: 185 out of a total of 5,190 - or 3.56 percent.
Lynden: 62 out of a total of 2,817 - or 2.2 percent.
Meridian: 21 out of a total of 2,266 - or 0.93 percent.
Mount Baker: 34 out of a total of 1,977 - or 1.7 percent.
Nooksack: 50 out of a total of 1,594 - or 3.1 percent.
More on homeless education in Washington state is online at k12.wa.us/HomelessEd.
Reach KIE RELYEA at email@example.com or call 715-2234.