According to state statistics, nearly 3 percent of Pendleton students get up, go to school and then find themselves sleeping in a tent or crashing on a couch for the night.
For Pendleton’s homeless student population, high school life is about enduring impermanent housing while balancing their lives at school.
For the Lamonts, the difference between having a roof over their head was a missed deadline.
Tasha Lamont and her 15-year-old son Daniel were kicked out of their subsidized housing when she didn’t turn in her recertification paperwork to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in time.
Tasha said she takes full responsibility for the mishap, but she also didn’t know where else to go. She wasn’t in a domestic abuse situation or addicted to drugs, so shelters geared to help people dealing with those situations were not available.
The pair could go to places like the Pendleton Public Library or Walmart during the day, but finding an overnight place proved more difficult. The Pendleton Warming Station doesn’t accept anyone under 18, so Tasha had to cross that off her list as well.
By August, the Lamonts had settled into their only option: a tent in a family member’s backyard.
Daniel said the following months in the tent were tough, especially when he had to get up in the morning without heat.
He tried to keep his homelessness under wraps, but rumors began to spread. Whenever a classmate dropped him off after school, he would get questions as to why he went through the back instead of to the front door.
He would tell them that his family would let him in through the back door, but that didn’t stop the gossip from continuing to churn.
“It was embarrassing for me and I didn’t know how it caught on so easily,” he said.
Despite his situation, Daniel said his grades didn’t drop, and he tried to stay focused and tune out the noise.
In the meantime, Tasha was trying to find a way out of the tent. She eventually found a solution from the Community Action Program of East Central Oregon’s moving forward rental assistance program, which provides temporary rental subsidies to people in need.
Actions snowballed rapidly: Tasha started talking with CAPECO on Dec. 7 about the program and by Dec. 18 she was signing paperwork to move into a new apartment.
Tasha decided to surprise Daniel with the news, telling him that they were going to be staying with a friend. When he walked into the empty apartment and realized it was all their’s, he was shocked.
“I had forgotten what it was like to have my own room,” he said.
Altrusa of Pendleton went a step further by donating Christmas gifts to the family, purchasing new clothes for Daniel and new furniture for the apartment.
“We didn’t think anyone cared enough,” Tasha said.
Debbie McBee has heard that sentiment before. McBee, a Pendleton School Board member, is the co-chair of Altrusa’s KARE project.
KARE — Kids at Risk Empowered — provides clothing, hygiene products and other essential household goods to homeless children within the Pendleton School District on a quarterly basis.
Altrusa is increasingly acting as the safety net for the district’s homeless and impoverished children.
Several years ago, Altrusa started Feeding the Child, a program that packed backbacks with food for students to take home to their families.
When they started the program, McBee said they were filling 20 backpacks a week. Midway through the 2017-2018 school year, Altrusa is now packing 247 backpacks per week and will continue to pack more.
McBee said the increased demand reflects a community with growing needs. While 20 percent of the district’s students qualified for free and reduced lunch in 2007, in 2018 four out of the district’s six schools have more than half of students who qualify.
In its second year, the KARE program is starting to grow as well, having already surpassed the 30 students it served in 2017.
To continue funding the program, Altrusa will hold the Love Keeps Us Warm event at the Slickfork Saloon on Feb. 10. It will feature live music, dessert and hors d’oeuvres. McBee said 100 percent of the proceeds from the $25 tickets will go toward KARE in addition to any donations made at the event.
McBee said Altrusa drops off the supplies at the schools and rarely meets the students that benefit from KARE face to face.
But last year, McBee was personally thanked by a student who cried as she embraced McBee.
“She didn’t have a perspective that strangers would care about her,” McBee said.
“Same crap, different pile”
Ozzy is another beneficiary of the KARE program, having received a sleeping bag and other supplies from Altrusa.
Because of his prior homelessness, Ozzy, an 18-year-old student at Pendleton High School, declined to share his last name.
His family’s troubles started early in 2017, when his mom took a four-week trip out of the country. Ozzy said his mother relied on people to pay the electric and rent bills while she was away, but they didn’t come through.
When she returned, they were evicted from there home.
Ozzy and his mom stayed in a hotel for a while before moving in with his brother and his girlfriend.
With all of them cramped into a two-bedroom trailer, Ozzy said he slept on a fold-out couch that didn’t have enough room to fold out. He remembered having to wake up in the middle of the night to readjust the cushions because they continued to fall off the sofa.
During this time, Ozzy said he tried to keep his public and private life separate, opening up more to his friends when life was going well while staying more quiet during the tougher weeks.
Ozzy and his mom moved into a trailer of their own in October, and although he said his room is about the size of a storage closet, he has enough space and is happy its just the two of them again.
Once he graduates from high school, Ozzy hopes to move to the San Diego area and pursue a career in writing graphic novels. To Ozzy, his bout with homelessness was just another obstacle to overcome.
“Same crap, different pile,” he said. “It’s the way you deal with the crap that matters.”