In the community

Local student homelessness rate rises

Mark Redmond, superintendent of the Malheur Education Service District, which helps homeless students across Malheur County (The Enterprise/Carolyn Agrimis)

VALE – The number of school students in Malheur County considered homeless continues to rise as school officials do what they can to help.

State records show that in the 2016-17 school year, 318 students from kindergarten to high school locally were classified as homeless.

This year, there are closer to 350, according to Mark Redmond, Malheur Education Service District superintendent.

“The definition of homeless in the education world is different than a lot of people think,” said Redmond. “The key is inadequate housing. If you have two families that are doubled up in a very, very small place, that could be identified as homeless.” 

In the 2017, there were 22,541 homeless students in Oregon’s schools – a record high, according to the Oregon Department of Education.

That number is part of trend in the state as the number of homeless students is steadily increasing year after year. In Oregon alone, the number of homeless students has risen by 19 percent since 2014, according to the Education Department. The state defines homeless students as those “who lack a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence.”

In Malheur County, those working in schools as well as in institutions designed to help community members in need have noticed an uptick in homeless students and say that the resources to help are strained.  

“When a child has been identified as homeless, our goal is to meet their immediate needs first,” said Alisha McBride, superintendent for the Vale School District.

Those needs – such as food, clothing, and shelter – need to be addressed “before we can expect them to focus or concentrate in a classroom,” said McBride.

Issues related to homelessness can have a “snowballing effect” on students she said. 

Homelessness can create attendance issues, which can then turn into academic and other issues, she said.

Systems are in place to ensure that homeless students have the same opportunities as other students. The McKinney-Vento Act of 1987 allocated federal funds to schools to help homeless students.

School districts compete for the funding, awarded every two years, and money provided is used by a school-home liaison to help families.

Redmond said the Malheur ESD typically applies for up to $25,000. This funding is in addition to what Malheur County school districts get for low-income students through federal funding.

“We try to make the money work for as long as it can,” said Redmond.

The schools use the money for “anything to help that population of students have an education that is equal to the other kids,” said Redmond.

Most of that money is spent on school supplies, but it can be spent to help the student feel more normal at school when their world outside may be in tumult.

“I’ve bought wrestling shoes so that they can be in wrestling – stuff that’s required that a lot of people don’t think about that is actually necessary for participating in that kind of stuff,” Redmond said.

When students and their families find themselves in need, the school’s job is to “provide support,” said Anabel Ortiz-Chavolla, the director of federal programs and school improvement for the Ontario School District.

“It’s different for every student,” said Ortiz-Chavolla.

School liaisons at each district assess how money can be used in the most helpful way for each student.

“We don’t want to add stress to an already stressful situation,” she said. “Most of the time this is a very recent thing and the family is still in shock.”

According to Ortiz-Chavolla, the school’s job is to “figure out what the big emergencies are” and then connect them to services that can fill the gaps that can’t be covered with the federal homeless funding. The homeless programs, for instance, can’t pay for rent or utilities.

One resource that helps families struggling with housing is Community in Action of Ontario. Community in Action offers families in Malheur and Harney counties help with rent and mortgage payments.

To get such services, families must apply and Community in Action assesses their eligibility, said Angie Uptmor, housing program manager at Community in Action.

Making sure that families can be connected to safe, stable housing is a constant struggle because of high demand and a lack of housing in the area, said Uptmor.

Another resource is the Housing Authority of Malheur County in Ontario, which uses a housing voucher program sponsored by the federal Housing and Urban Development to connect people with eligible properties. 

Even with that funding, finding places for needy families can be difficult.

“It’s a tight rental market,” said Merlene Bourasa, executive director of the Housing Authority. 

She noted that “finding affordable housing is a challenge for low income families” because rentals are “few and far between.”

“Families are having a tough time financially and we assist with their housing but not everyone can get assistance,” said Bourasa. There’s “always a demand” for the Housing Authority’s services but “we can only assist so many folks,” said Bourasa.

The Housing Authority has a wait time now of about 18 months, she said.

Rental housing has to meet federal standards before it can be eligible for the federally-subsidized rent payments.

“Our goal is health and safety,” said Bourasa. “You can’t just put a shack in a field and get rental assistance.”

Rental housing for large families is “almost unheard of” in Malheur County, Bourasa said.

 “Some families have a tough road ahead of them and it’s always kids who are hurt the most,” said Bourasa.

The stress from being homeless can have a negative impact on kids.

“If a child is sleeping in a car, or doesn’t have dinner, and doesn’t have access to clean clothes, chances are that child is going to be troubled and maybe act out,” said McBride.

“I know that when I get hungry I get irritated, so when you add those barriers, the student’s focus is not on education. Their focus is on the next meal or where they’re going to sleep that night,” said McBride.

Identifying these students early in the school year is crucial in ensuring that their studies are interrupted as little as possible.

School administrators work to identify homeless students at the beginning of the school year by looking at past lists or having parents notify them that their housing situation has changed, said Ortiz-Chavolla. 

However, even with those systems in place it can be sometimes be difficult to identify everyone in need.

“We have a lot of families who are okay in August but by October they’re doubled up,” she said.

As the school year goes on, school staff try to identify homeless students in a non-intrusive way, said Ortiz-Chavolla. 

According to her, the schools’ job is to “give families hope.”

“If we give them hope, we have to make sure it happens,” she said. Ortiz-Chavolla wants them to know that “whatever they’re going through is temporary,” she said.

“We are here to help and we are going to do our best to get them somewhere better,” she said.

Ortiz-Chavolla had another message for the community.

“It’s important for the community to remember that it’s not a choice that you make. It’s a result of circumstance, Ortiz-Chavolla said.

Reporter Carolyn Agrimis: [email protected] or 541-473-3377.