In the community, Special Reports

Children tucked into RVs, living with friends as Malheur County housing remains inadequate

Each week, Mary Ann Almaraz stops by the Ontario Community Church to meet a local student she serves as the homeless liaison for the Ontario School District. 

Manuel, until recently a junior at Ontario High School, was napping when she arrived. They hug, sit down at a wooden table, and the case update begins.

“We don’t have a lot of food right now,” Manuel tells her.

The food stamp benefits Manuel’s sister got were reduced after pandemic relief was cut. 

“We run out of food fast at the house,” Manuel continues.

They only have eggs and milk, nothing else. He fidgets a bit while speaking, and Almaraz tells him she will get some groceries together from the food pantry. He thanks her and looks relieved.

Manuel (not his real name to protect his privacy) lives with his older sisters, two nieces and a friend. They live apart from their parents due to a history of drug issues in the family and the lack of income.

Throughout Malheur County, students such as Manuel are missing a stable home. Inadequate shelter disrupts their lives, from schooling to social services.

Manuel’s oldest sister is the main wage earner in the group.

For a household of six facing rent up to $950 on an income of about $3,000 a month, there is not much left to work with after rent is paid. Manuel works part time to contribute and helps by taking care of his nieces when he can.

He hopes to go to college, but is taking a break from school after he was stabbed last year in his neighborhood.

He lives in one of Ontario’s “poverty hotspots,” principally in east and southwest Ontario. Poverty rates reach 20% or more, according to the U.S Census Bureau. These areas experience higher levels of crime and inadequate housing, which can detrimentally affect students like Manuel.

On her way to meet Manuel, Almaraz drives past boarded-up homes in east Ontario and along Manuel’s street.

She has known Manuel since he was in seventh grade. She’s seen his highs and lows, and tries to be a stable force in his life, as with all her students.

As she wraps up her meeting with Manuel, he says, “I love you,” appreciative of her support.

She smiles, then replies, “I love you too.”

Defining child poverty

Children who grow up in families enduring economic hardship can be impoverished by lack of life’s basic needs. They often do not have a stable supply of food, adequate and safe shelter, means for education or care for their medical and mental health traumas. As a consequence, children’s physical, cognitive and emotional development is affected.

No home for too many

Though Manuel lives with his sisters, he is part of a group of students considered homeless. These students have complicated living situations.

They might not have a place to stay, living in cars or tents, struggling in motels and hotels. Maybe they are experiencing instability at home, or live at a friend’s place.

All these situations can have deleterious effects on children. 

“Children experiencing homelessness are sick at twice the rate of children who have homes. They also go hungry twice as often as children who have homes,” according to the National Center on Early Childhood Health and Wellness. “Children experiencing homelessness have twice the rate of learning disabilities and three times the rate of emotional and behavioral problems of children who have homes.”

Living in such unstable conditions can produce anxiety in kids.

“They always have to think about am I going to get kicked out and am I going to be able to stay here long enough to find somewhere before I get kicked out? And then you have to have the concern of who else goes in and out of the house because it’s not their house. So they don’t have control over that,” Almaraz said.

Almaraz steps in with support that students aren’t getting from their parents.

Officer Jon Laurenson of the Ontario Police Department at Ontario’s tiny home complex, used during the winter to shelter the homeless. (SUEJIN LIM/The Enterprise) Children of Poverty

She attended to three boys living in an RV without running water or electricity. Almaraz picked them up every morning so they could clean up before school.

“A big reason why they didn’t want to come to school was because they stunk. And so we would get them showered, take them to school, I’d get them food from the pantry, supply them with clothes. I would wash their laundry,” she recalled.

Last year, her first year on the job, Almaraz worked with 107 children like Manuel across the Ontario School District. Out of those 107 children, only 16 got housing. The remaining 91 families are still working with her, some facing eviction and others living in cars.

“It’s a very competitive time,” Almaraz said.

She is referring to the affordable housing crisis in Malheur County. Almaraz helped families submit 62 applications to an affordable apartment complex, River Bend Place in Ontario, last year. Only five families got in.

The lack of housing is just the biggest struggle Ontario will always face. There are just too many residents here and not enough housing. And if there is enough housing, it’s not affordable housing,” said Almaraz.

The housing shortage is exacerbated by rising prices across the region that push people out of Boise and the surrounding areas.

“We have people moving into our community from the Boise valley because they can find a home here that’s cheaper. And I’ve had numerous parents tell me that, Oh, what brought you to Vale? Um, we could afford a house here,” said Lisa Anderson, principal of the Vale Middle School. We saw a rental for $500. We didn’t even know where Vale was, but we could afford it. So that’s why they moved here. And sight unseen sometimes. Which always, like, did you know this was this small of a town in the middle of the desert?

“They just were looking for housing.”

These border movements between Idaho and Oregon are happening as a state of emergency for homelessness was declared in Malheur County by Gov. Tina Kotek last March.

Though it’s not common, some children live in the homeless encampments that dot the county, according to Deputy Haylee Harding of the Malheur County Sheriff’s Department. Only a few weeks ago, her department arrested a mother living in a camper with her three children.

“They had a massive lice infestation and they were living in that camp and they didn’t have much food. They didn’t have clean clothes. There was water damage to the camper. And it was really sad,” said Harding.

The series:

Part 1 – Malheur County continues to have one of the worst rates of child poverty in Oregon, despite determined local efforts.

Part 2 – Children are living in substandard housing, as Malheur County’s shortage of homes remains challenging.

Part 3 – Getting enough food to feed children is no easy task for many Malheur County households.

Part 4 – Schools in Malheur County step in to serve children in need with more than an education.

Part 5 – Shortage of facilities and professionals leaves children’s mental health needs unmet.

The kids were referred to state protective services. Harding tries to follow the cases, but can’t always manage.

That’s pretty difficult for me to see.” she said.

Children experience Malheur County’s housing crisis in different ways. As Almaraz explained, “What are they supposed to do when they’re underage?” 

Recovering from homelessness

What does it mean to grow up without a stable home? Sharon Katz, a retired psychologist who volunteers in the Ontario school system, said one girl asked how to see stars.

“I told her to look out her window,” said Katz. “She told me she didn’t have a window.” The child lives in a camper with two other siblings and a cousin.

In Walmart’s parking lot, along the Snake River, and on the landscape besides farms, the transient population has tripled in Malheur County, according to Dave Goldthorpe, Malheur County district attorney.

School employees are often the first to recognize the signs of homelessness or housing insecurity in children.

“I have two students that live in an RV,” says an Ontario elementary school teacher, who did not want to be identified to avoid stigmatizing her students. “I have two students being raised by their grandparents because their parents are on drugs and cannot care for them. And it’s just pretty stark what it does to kids.”

If teachers notice students need help, they can refer them to the school liaison. There are nine homeless liaisons in Malheur County, including Almaraz. They all operate under the federal McKinney-Vento Act, which tries to ensure homeless students get a free public education.

Almaraz grew up in poverty herself, but was lucky enough to be taken in by a middle- school teacher.

“She guided me. She helped me know right from wrong. She let me have that understanding because without her, I definitely wouldn’t be here today,” said Almaraz.

Ontario is far short of housing affordable for struggling families, authorities say. Malheur County’s largest city has a high poverty rate, according to state and federal data. (VENICE TANG/The Enterprise) Chldren of Poverty

A single mother, Almaraz works a second job at Walmart to make ends meet for her own family. But it’s her efforts for kids that has her heart.

“I just knew they needed to have more people like me who had the understanding [of] what students go through because I can be in their shoes nine out of ten times,” she said.

One of Almaraz’s students, Lucas McManis, just graduated from Ontario High School. McManis recalled the family moved often as rent rose, and they frequently lost power, water and internet.

“You feel just kind of helpless because there’s all this stuff going on with your parents and no one’s talking about anything,” he said.

He started working part time as soon as he could to help.

“I was super stressed out and working all the time and having to balance work and school,” McManis said.

He said his father asked him to leave home when he turned 18, at which point the school system considered him legally homeless. He left a chaotic home behind.

“There was trash,” he said. “We had trash all over the counters. We had food left out every single time we would have dinner. So that would go wrong. We had bugs constantly, everywhere,” he said.

McManis was fortunate to move in with a friend.

“I got lucky enough that I contacted one of my friends and asked them if I could move in,” he said.

With that newfound stability, McManis could concentrate on school, and now plans to attend Treasure Valley Community College.

“What I needed was a better place to be or some sort of resource that I could use to reach out and help me in my current situation” McManis continued.“People really look down on people in that situation. And it really sucks because it’s so easy for life to go wrong.”   

Scarce housing

There are no homeless shelters in Malheur County, although funding just came through for one to open early next year. Applying for housing is difficult and complicated. Between long applications and longer waiting times, it’s easy for those looking for housing to feel confused.

For the few affordable housing options that do exist in Malheur County, it is often accessed by those who are “in the know,” according to Almaraz. She means people who can get referrals. For families who lack a housing history, it is difficult to establish such connections. But even with referrals, there’s still a long list of qualifications to apply.

“There’s always one thing that’s going to fail somebody,” Almaraz says.

Jason Lindsey is a father. He has four children and shares one room with his two teenage sons. He is getting his degree at Treasure Valley Community College, while working at Taco Bell, attempting to better his life and get a better place.

There is one hurdle: his stint in the Malheur County Jail for three months due to previous addiction and substance use.

“It is difficult finding housing for somebody with my history.” Lindsey said, “It makes sense, you know, you see me on paper, you’re like, ‘Oh man, terrible person!” 

The list of qualifications to get affordable housing can be long. Income qualifications matter the most, and with families who are trying to better their conditions and get better paying jobs or working more than one job, they can sometimes earn too much to get housing help.

I have a mom right now who’s living at Fairview Apartments, and she just started working and now she’s over income.” Almaraz says. “And so now she has to find somewhere else to move, but there’s just nothing available.” 

This disqualifies families from the affordable housing they attained, and then have to compete in a housing market with high rents and often substandard housing.

About one out of three households in Malheur County – about 3,155 – have at least one housing problem, according to Comprehensive Housing Affordability Strategy data from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. It could be related to kitchen facilities, plumbing, overcrowded rooms, or high rents or mortgages that take up more than a third of a family’s income.

As a result, people could be living in places that are “not meant for habitation for prolonged periods of time,” according to Rebecca Lemmons, director of community health and wellbeing at the Saint Alphonsus Medical Center of Ontario.

The fair market rent in Malheur County is $1,165 for a three-bedroom apartment, according to the Oregon Housing and Community Services Department. With what the U.S. Census Bureau reports to be a median income around $47,000 in the county, rent can be a stretch.

And for those working at minimum wage or laboring at one of Malheur’s farms, such housing can feel far out of reach.

“There’snot enough housing. That’s probably my number one trouble.” Almaraz said.

Rebecca Tollotson, a single mother with one child, has been looking for housing in Malheur County. She hoped to get into one local mobile home park but heard it’s closing down.

Other projects are also not enough. The Tiny Homes project, run by Origins Faith Community, is closed during the summer. Community in Action, the county’s premier organization to help those struggling with housing, is struggling itself.

“We always feel like we’re overworked and understaffed,” says Jody Warnock, voicing a sentiment she says is shared by many social workers.

“You want to do more but there’s not much more you can do,” says Almaraz. 

A man helps clean a kitten on May 20, 2023, for a friend who is an unhoused individual living in an RV in Ontario. (SHANE DIMAPANAT/The Enterprise) Chlldren of Poverty

Change is needed

Miguel Castillo, who now lives in Caldwell, Idaho, grew up in Ontario during the 2000s. He lived in one of Ontario’s poverty hotspots like Manuel and when he was 17, he was charged with a felony.

“There was just gang violence all around us. There was just, you know, shootings around our house, shootings everywhere,” Castillo said. “And it just started getting really, really bad, you know? And we started just sleeping here and there because we didn’t have nowhere to stay.”

Castillo floated from couch to couch, to friends’ apartments and to low-income complexes. He was lucky, and didn’t go to prison. He now has two kids himself and a wife. He owns a home, miles from Ontario, and credits the turnaround in his life to getting sober.

Many of Almaraz’s students face similar situations. She dreams of buying a big house or RV park where her family could live. She has her eye on a historic home with 16 bedrooms that costs about $600,000.

“I want to have somewhere for my families because at the end of the day, it’s not more or less for the parent but for these students. They have to sleep in a vehicle. They don’t have a bed, they don’t have anywhere to go,” she said.  

Ontario is far short of housing affordable for struggling families, authorities say. Malheur County’s largest city is seen from the east bank of the Snake River in Idaho. (VENICE TANG/The Enterprise) Chldren of Poverty

Reporters Christina Chkarboul, Andie Kalinowski, Suejin Lim and Venice Tang contributed reporting with supervision provided by Rebecca Haggerty and Judy Muller of USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.


Join the conversation. How can the community improve life for children in impoverished circumstances? Who should take the lead on this issue? Send an email to Publisher Les Zaitz: [email protected].

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