Jene Ray Delivers TEDx Spokane Talk: Our Community’s Opportunity Cost of Unstably Housed Students

In this impactful talk, ZONE Director, Jene Ray, addresses the critical issue of housing instability among students and its profound impact on academic success. Ray explores the unseen obstacles faced by students navigating housing insecurity and presents a groundbreaking solution involving Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs). Ray delves into the academic consequences of housing instability, revealing how students facing precarious living situations often find themselves falling behind. She sheds light on the opportunity cost borne by communities when the potential of these bright minds is hindered by the stress and challenges associated with unstable housing situations. The talk emphasizes the pressing need for innovative solutions, and Ray introduces the concept of Accessory Dwelling Units as a transformative step towards addressing the housing crisis. By creating additional living spaces within existing properties, ADUs present a viable and sustainable approach to alleviating housing instability, fostering stability for students and their families. Throughout the talk, Ray illustrates how stable housing directly correlates with improved academic performance, social well-being, and overall success for students. By sharing compelling stories and research findings, she advocates for a holistic understanding of the multifaceted impact of housing instability on the educational journey of young individuals. Jene Ray's presentation is a compelling exploration of the intersection between housing stability and academic success, offering tangible solutions to empower communities to invest in the potential of their youth and build a more equitable and resilient future.

Jene currently serves as The ZONE's Director and Associate Director of the Northeast Community Center, aligning partners and developing programs with residents in Northeast Spokane to catalyze multi-generational outcomes in housing, safety, health, economics, and education. This talk was given at a TEDx event using the TED conference format but independently organized by a local community. Learn more at

*Video description from YouTube


When you hear ‘Homeless’ what do you picture? A single male? Probably some drug use?

We often stereotype and dehumanize our unhoused population. So today we’re opening our eyes to the HIDDEN HOMELESS. The hidden homeless are families finding ANYWHERE to be inside. Single parents with kids choosing less safe conditions just to stay warm. 2 and 3 families living in a unit intended for one; not counted as homeless and yet without a lease or guarantee of a place to stay.

Sam shows up to school and is expected to function, put aside trauma and struggles, and focus on math equations. Yey. EXCEPT the sequence of the concepts and the textbook itself changes when the next place Sam sleeps changes. We have 17 school districts in our county alone. Each selects its own curriculum. Which means when Sam moves from the north side to the valley, the old math lessons may not prepare Sam for today’s problems.

A third of the kids in our community are growing up this way. A third. If there are 27 kids in a classroom - 9 of them are unstably housed.

Studies show having a trusted adult at school gives a student the support to work through issues and be successful; having friends provides a sense of belonging allowing the brain to learn instead of being consumed by anxiety and safety; and a good night’s sleep and proper nutrition is vital to brain tasks like learning at school.

 Sam takes turns sleeping on a bed and the floor, has no quiet place to do homework, and shares a bathroom with so many people, bathing and personal needs often go unmet. Sometimes Sam is even separated from siblings, spread out in different places until they can find another place where they can all be together again. It’s stressful for Sam to have multiple households living together - factor in different kid personalities, conflicts, parenting styles. So stressful often one of the families need to find a new family to double up with. Hopefully fairly close to the same school.

With less than 1% vacancy rates, affordable housing is becoming the number one request of households at our Community Center. OVER HALF of recent survey respondents said they double up to afford housing. As Director of a non-profit in Northeast Spokane supporting children, youth, and families, when interviewing students not thriving at a local middle school, 75% of them revealed they are unstably housed. High school youth in our community, when asked what we should do with an empty lot, designed a safe space to hang out and do laundry. Middle school students book showers before school in the resource room, and slots are always full.

What if this was your child? Tired, hungry, stressed, and uncertain what they would find when they got back to where they’ll sleep tonight. Essentially on their own in the midst of a household, watching out for younger siblings as well; feeling defensive and tired of not being able to control their environment.

Would that be an OK life for your kids? Does it feel OK to NOT have all our community’s children safe and nurtured so they can thrive? I hope you’re feeling uncomfortable. If so you’re ready to contribute to community action for housing stability.

A solution for affordable housing is concentrating poverty in large buildings on the outskirts of town. And yes, this may solve a roof over a head; it doesn’t connect kids to opportunities embedded in neighborhoods with diversity of income, education, and culture.

Our municipal and state codes allow adding housing density in our own HOMES and BACKYARDS. Up to four dwelling units on current single-family lots. So if homeowners added an accessory dwelling unit (an ADU) by or in their house they could double housing capacity providing a home for a family who would then be a part of the social fabric of that neighborhood.

Think of our low-income homeowners and rising property tax costs. The income from a rental unit could mean the difference of them being able to afford staying in their home. Could there be a program where up-front costs of adding a unit on their lot is paid back through a percent of rent over time? Not only would we be increasing affordable housing, we’d be preventing displacement of current homeowners because they now would be able to afford to stay.

Housing impacts employment, education, mental and physical health, and wealth. Housing is foundational. It is the right investment for you, for our community, and our economy.

When we have stories like Sam’s to go with the discussion of housing, if we understand the academic impacts of bouncing around from school to school without continuity of trusted adults, a peer group to be a part of, or continuous learning, perhaps we will understand that turning a blind eye hurts and costs all of us.

Research shows that each student who doesn’t graduate from high school costs our community and economy $292,000. Low-income kids drop out at double the rate of middle-income kids, and 10x the rate of higher income kids. Stable housing is foundational to doing school. Our cost is $292,000 per kid like Sam, falling through the cracks.

We can no longer afford the ‘not in my backyard’ mentality. When we see a permit for a 4-plex on our way home, when we consider a mix of ownership and rentals near us- let’s flip our mental model and celebrate that one more family- hidden somewhere in our community, will have a home and neighborhood of their own. Let’s open our eyes to Sam and the hidden homeless, let’s open our eyes to the positive impacts of embedding affordable housing throughout our neighborhoods, and let’s understand our community’s opportunity cost of unstably housed students.

Affordable safe stable housing belongs on the school supply list and is as necessary as pencils and notebooks to prepare our next generation of civic, business, and community leaders. When kids have the capacity to focus on their own goals and dreams, they will realize these and gift our region with innovative solutions and a thriving economy as their legacy.

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