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Homeless students face extra barriers to success

Shelter still an issue for schools trying to help homeless students
Antonio Sierra

East Oregonian

Published on December 8, 2017 6:28PM

A typical student has many concerns: getting good grades, making friends and participating in extracurricular activities are just a few.

But for many students, they can come second to a more basic need: finding a place to live.

The state recently released numbers for homeless students in Oregon. The state reached an all-time high this year, with 3.9 percent of public school students qualifying as homeless.

Hermiston’s numbers were below the state average, with 1.1 percent of students qualifying as homeless under the McKinney-Vento Act, the federal guidelines for student homelessness. Pendleton also fell below the state average, with 2.9 percent of students qualifying.

Lisa Depew, Hermiston School District’s homeless liaison, said 25 students in the district qualified as homeless this year.

She said at the beginning of the year, secretaries are usually able to assess whether a student is in an unstable living situation and can then refer them to the counselor to further determine their needs.

The district then works with state and local agencies to provide certain services for students, such as free lunches, transportation services, clothing and school supplies. Even if a student doesn’t qualify under the federal definition of “homelessness,” in a small community they can often still receive those services.

“Maybe it’s because we’re rural and small, but we wrap around a kid,” she said.

She added that they try to provide some other services at the secondary school level as well, such as waivers for sports participation fees or testing fees.

But she said there are certain things on which the district can’t spend money designated for homeless students, including shelter.

“We don’t go there,” she said. “Unfortunately, we don’t have a shelter, and one area that is sorely needed is affordable housing. Our care coordinator will attempt to assist with that.”

InterMountain Education Service District Superintendent Mark Mulvihill said the number of homeless students is increasing because institutions are getting better at identifying them, rather than a rise in overall youth homelessness.

Mulivihill said the IMESD combines its money with Greater Oregon Behavioral Health Inc. and Umatilla County to provide its Wellness Hubs programs. In addition to providing services like oral health, nursing and mental health to students in need, Mulvihill said one of the most important parts of the programs is the ability of care coordinators to go visit homes.

While phone calls used to suffice, Mulvihill said having a staff member visit a student’s living situation gives educators a better way of assessing homelessness and what the student needs.

Julie Smith, the Pendleton School District director of special programs, said student homelessness spans a variety of scenarios.

Youth who live in cars, parks, homeless shelters, transitional housing, hotels or motels, or doubled up with family members or friends because of some sort of hardship, are also considered homeless in the eyes of the state.

Pendleton provides many of the same services as Hermiston, but student homelessness remains an impediment to learning everywhere. Without a stable housing situation, there isn’t much time for homework or reading.

“They’re in survival mode,” Smith said.

Stanfield Secondary School counselor Kirsten Wright said that while the district keeps information about homeless students confidential, teachers often have some awareness that a student is in need, and will try to help make things easier.

“Grades are a huge concern,” said Wright, who attended a training this week about homeless students. “I think our teachers, even if we don’t tell them (a student is homeless), are really good at providing accommodations.”

But she added that it is a burden for students in unstable living situations to prioritize classes.

“Sometimes they have younger siblings and need to be caretakers,” she said. “It takes away from getting to be a student and getting to participate in extracurricular activities.”

Wright recalled a student who graduated last year who was sharing space with another family because her own living situation was unstable.

“She was still financially on her own for a lot of it,” Wright said.

She added that the student gave birth right before her senior year, and still had a few classes to complete.

“One accommodation we gave was we shortened the day,” Wright said. “It was to ease the burden of not only homelessness, but needing to work and provide for the baby.”

Wright said the student completed her education successfully, the first in her family to have a high school diploma.

“She had to overcome a lot of barriers to achieve that, so that was huge,” she said.


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