Although the number of homeless students in the Oregon school system has leveled off in recent months, the total number remains high as families continue to struggle with a difficult and uncertain economy. The latest data shows that 20,370 students attending classes across the state are considered homeless, which roughly translates to about 3.7% of the total student population.
The Oregon Department of Education – which collected and analyzed data for the 2011-2012 school year — classifies a student as “homeless” if he or she is lacking stable housing at least for some portion of the academic year. This represents a slight drop off from the 20,545 students classified as homeless last year, the first decline since the state DOE began keeping track of the numbers in 2003.
Students are counted as “homeless” under the definition of the federal McKinney-Vento law. It includes students who are living in shelters, sleeping in cars, living on their own or living with relatives. It also includes students whose families are living in doubled-up housing situations. Under the law, districts must employ liaisons to ensure homeless students can stay within their home school and receive free or reduced lunch, among other things. The law is aimed at providing some semblance of stability for students when their home lives may provide anything but.
Justin Wood, an Oregon senior, was homeless over his first three years in high school. During that time he continuously moved from house to house in Portland and surrounding areas because of continuing conflict with his family. He said that his living situation was so unstable, he didn’t even have time to worry about academics. The priority was finding a place to sleep and a meal to eat. Wood has since found a home with a friend.
Woods is only one example from the Raynolds School District, which, at 9%, has the highest student homelessness rates in the Portland metro area. And those in charge don’t see much relief on the horizon. While the state is supposedly in recovery after the battering the Oregon economy took in the wake of 2008, the signs of it are scarce in Portland and the surrounding areas.
Molly Frye, the district’s homeless liaison, says that she doesn’t often hear about families landing jobs or getting back on their feet — prerequisites for the total number of the displaced to go into decline. Meanwhile, the resources that the city and the state set aside to help the students and their families continue to be inadequate.
In pure numbers, Portland and Beaverton, the state’s two largest school districts, again had the most homeless students. In Portland, federal programs administrator Ray DeMarco said the needs are so pronounced that the district plans to hire a fourth community agent to help with its homeless outreach. Despite the high numbers in the urban area, the hardest-hit communities throughout the state continue to be former timber towns still reeling from the industry’s decline. With 32 of its 127 students affected, Butte Falls in Jackson County had the highest rate of homelessness in the state, with 25 percent.