Medford: Homeless student problem needs solving

From the Medford Mail Tribune, October 3, 2011

Jackson County sees 23 percent spike in students on the streets

The number of homeless students in Jackson County jumped 23 percent last year, largely because of the poor economy, school officials said.

Medford schools showed an 18 percent increase in homeless students, from 1,139 in 2009-10 to 1,341 in 2010-11, according to statistics released last week by the Oregon Department of Education.

“One in 10 Medford students are homeless now,” said Terri Dahl, supervisor of federal programs for the Medford district. “It’s totally the economy. People aren’t finding jobs, and their homes are foreclosing. They’re doubling and tripling up with family members. They’re running out of shelter.”

The count, required annually for federal grant money, showed Medford ranked 11th in the state for homeless students at 10.7 percent.

Butte Falls, a district of 161 students, showed the highest percentage in the state — 24.8 — with 36 homeless students. Other districts in the top 20 statewide included Rogue River at 10.8 percent, Prospect at 9.2 percent and Phoenix-Talent at 8.9 percent. Phoenix-Talent’s homeless student population grew by 144 students from the previous year, giving it the greatest percentage increase among Jackson County districts — 148 percent.

Eagle Point saw a 26-student drop in homelessness from the previous year, a difference of 9.3 percent. Central Point and Ashland’s homeless rates grew by 57 percent and 17.8 percent, respectively.

“We’ve had so much job loss and foreclosures,” said Dahl. “Our migrant population has gone down in this period, while homelessness has jumped. It’s very difficult when basic needs are not being met.”

Many of the homeless students come from newly jobless families moving in from California and other neighboring states to live with kin, said Dahl, “and there’s been no improvement in the situation.”

Students on lunch break from Central High School in Medford said they knew homeless students or had been homeless for weeks or months themselves.

“I go back and forth being homeless and not,” said senior Braden Pruett. “I’ve been on the street and couch-surfed, when I got kicked out or didn’t have a job. There aren’t enough jobs. I live now with my mom.”

Senior Brandy Sellars blamed the problem on the “low living standard” of Medford. She said she was homeless for a period at age 12 but is not homeless now.

At the Maslow Project, which provides food, clothing and other services for homeless students, director Mary Ferrell said the problem is tied to “a lot of chronic and generational poverty. We’re on I-5 and have a hub of social services here — and Medford is the only place with family shelters.”

In addition, Ferrell said, “Medford is good at finding homeless kids. We do street outreach. Immigration is not a primary driver of student homelessness. This is happening in families where they’ve lost their jobs and have poor credit and limited resources, as well as some substance abuse and domestic violence.”

Exhaustion of 18 months of unemployment benefits also is a factor, she said.

Some families, on an emergency basis, are staying in motels, doubling up and paying $800 to $1,200 a month for one room, “and that takes most of their resources,” she said.

Ferrell said she knows of students who sleep in parks and bathe at the YMCA before they go to school. Her organization, located near Central Medford at 500 Monroe St., is in need of both food and clothing donations.

Many homeless students, said senior Allysia Brown, “don’t want to be with parents because the living situation is really bad. Some parents do lots of drugs.”

Some students leave home because they feel parents are too harsh on them, said senior Ian Rowbottom.

“I’ve run away or been kicked out, then we got in a fight and needed time to repair the relationship,” he said.

North Medford High School Principal Ron Beick said he enrolls any homeless student who comes to the school and begins finding “any support needed to survive. It’s part of the public process.”

Dahl said the Medford School District is “using as many resources as we can to help homeless students,” including $75,000 in federal Title I grant funds, increased by $25,000 this year, for homeless elementary children. Another $50,000 was secured on a competitive basis from the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, which is being administered by a consortium of all schools in Jackson County. Medford received $40,000 of it.

“The problem is that the need keeps rising, so this is very difficult,” Dahl said.

Statewide, 20,545 K-12 students were homeless at some point in the last school year, 1,500 more than the year before, said State Superintendent of Public Instruction Susan Castillo, in a news release.

“The number of homeless students in Oregon continues to rise as families and communities struggle with persistent economic challenges,” said Castillo. “These are very real challenges without easy solutions, but in every school district in Oregon these families have a resource, a homeless liaison ready to help with school supplies, clothing, placement assistance and transportation to school.”