The Creswell Chronicle -

By Aliya Hall
The Creswell Chronicle 

Homeless students in our schools

 

March 7, 2019

As the state of Oregon faces a crisis of homelessness and a lack of affordable housing, ripple effects are cast into education, as students and their families in Creswell are dealing with its ramifications.

According to data from Oregon's homelessness count, there were 70 students in 2017-18 who are homeless in the Creswell School District; around 5.6 percent. That is a 40-student increase from the 2016-17 numbers.

Homeless Liaison Brandi Wittenborn said one of the reasons for the increase is that the school district has honed its process of tracking kids by making sure all the schools understand the criteria and that they are keeping better track of those numbers.

"Have the numbers increased? Absolutely, but we've been keeping better tack," she said.

Despite their best tracking efforts, Wittenborn still said those numbers are "soft" because not everyone reports their status with the school or they become homeless throughout the school year and don't let them know; she estimated the numbers to be closer to 120.

Working with Wittenborn is Crystal Perdue, family resource coordinator. Due to her position at Creslane, Perdue often meets with unhoused families and Wittenborn works directly with the teenagers who come to her; together they coordinate the best ways of accomplishing everyone's needs.

Beyond tracking, Wittenborn helps coordinate transportation services for students to remain at their enrolled school of origin. She said that students can live as far as Oakridge or Veneta, and she will coordinate transportation to help the child have more stability in their education.

She also passes along resources of health care and dental services, mental health and substance abuse services, housing services and opportunities for employment.

Perdue said one of her roles is helping to create and maintain stable and healthy families in the school district. Along with helping families with their immediate need, she works with them to help get them back on their feet.

"My hope is that people feel comfortable and safe coming to me so that I can connect them with our homeless liaison or other resources they need while they are displaced," Perdue said. "We realize that the success of children requires collaboration on all levels, and one part of that is helping primary caretakers gain the tools and resources they need to parent, while also helping them realize their own strengths and successes."

The category "homeless children and youths" specifically refers to individuals who lack a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence, Superintendent Todd Hamilton said. This could mean being temporarily doubled up with friends or relatives; living in a motel, car or campsite; living in a shelter; or living in cars, parks, public spaces, abandoned buildings, substandard housing, bus or train stations.

"Based on our conversations with students and families, we're seeing an increase in the number of families that are doubling up - living with relatives or friends," Hamilton said in an email. "There are many reasons that contribute to students and families becoming homeless: economic, family relationships, health issues, etc. Regardless of the reason, we focus on providing the necessary supports for our students to be successful."

He added that one of the reasons for the increased homelessness numbers is that families and students have said that they feel more comfortable asking for help.

Perdue said this awareness is important because of its effect on students. "The children feel the stress of their caretakers and it weighs on them," she said. "Oftentimes they lose sleep and may not be eating well; all of these things make it pretty hard to learn at school. If we can help a family by connecting them with resources to get them stable, it lightens the load and gives a little hope to (them)."

The biggest challenge Perdue and Wittenborn face in helping families get on their feet is the reality of the job and housing market.

There are certain resources, like shelters, that Creswell just doesn't have.

"When we can't offer that for them, it's just heartbreaking. Knowing that their options are slim and the conditions they're going to have to be in and live in," Wittenborn said.

Perdue agreed that is the hardest part of their job, and they don't know what the solution is; however, she said that she is thankful for a community that helps those families fill the gap in other ways.

There are clothing closets at the schools, as well as the Creswell Food4Kids program. The City has a food pantry and WomenSpace comes down weekly. Local churches also provide clothing closets and provides meals a few days each week.

"I have to say that this is the most giving community I have ever been a part of," Perdue said. "I am amazed at all of the local community members, church members and pastors and business owners that donate their time, money and services to this community and our families."

Perdue and Wittenborn are even trying to get more involved by creating a resource book for families that has all the possible options for them, and Perdue is putting together a phone tree of individuals that she can turn to when there's a need. She said the goal is to set up a more streamlined system.

Creslane is also now bringing in an Oregon Health Plan (OHP) Coordinator on the first Thursday of each month, which began in March, to help sign up families or answer questions that could be had; all that is needed is proof of a month's worth of income.

Although the community has become more aware of the City's homelessness situation, Wittenborn said that it's still not at the forefront of people's minds.

"I just think that people really don't know about the epidemic," she said. "It's out of sight out of mind. A lot of people are embarrassed to talk about it, but there's an overabundance of people living with other people that is not their permanent housing, or living in their cars or tents."

 
 

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