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Homeless student numbers on the rise

Of the Keizertimes

Keizer schools served 199 homeless students during the last academic year, students who were spending the night doubled up in homes with other families, in shelters, hotels and motels, cars and on the street.

McNary High School was third among the Salem-Keizer School District high schools with 52 homeless students. Claggett Creek Middle School was second among district middle schools with 42 homeless students. With 33 homeless students, Weddle Elementary School was tied for first (alongside Highland Elementary School) among Salem-Keizer elementary schools.

KEIZERTIMES/Andrew Jackson
KEIZERTIMES/Andrew Jackson

If those numbers are sobering, consider this: there are no dedicated shelters for homeless youth in Marion County.

“There is no place but the streets,” said Tricia Ratliff, program director of Salem’s HOME Youth and Resource Center. Ratliff spoke to members of the Mid-Willamette Homeless Initiative Task Force at its meeting Monday, Oct. 17, providing an overview of what is available and what is needed as far as local services.

HOME, which is administered by Community Action Agency, provides local homeless youth, ages 11 to 18, with a contact point for engaging support services and a safe place to spend time studying or simply among friends.

HOME administrators are seeking to expand the scope of what it offers, but Ratliff said the most glaring hole is the lack of a dedicated shelter.

“We’re working to provide a continuum of care because supporting one step and not thinking about what’s downstream is a disservice,” she said.

Intervention services and transitional housing options are somewhat more stable, but there are still a lot of difficult conversations being had at HOME on a daily basis.

“When we close at 7 p.m., we’re working on what is the best of the worst options before our kids come back to check-in in the morning,” Ratliff said.

HOME is hoping to either find or build a space for a shelter modeled after Linn-Benton County’s Jackson Street Youth Services. The annual cost of running such a shelter, with up to a dozen beds, would be about $500,000.

Jackson Street Program Director Kendrasue Phillips-Neal, said the Jackson Street opened just over a year ago and serves youth ages 10 to 24 years old with dedicated spaces for males, females and a flex room for transgender and questioning youth.

“There’s a lot being done, but it’s still not enough. (Youth homeless services) continue to be very low funded and there is a much bigger need than there are beds,” Phillips-Neal said.

Even operating at a below-optimal level, one HOME youth, Michael Jones, said the services have made a huge difference in his life.

“I was skeptical because, from my point of view, nobody cared,” said Jones. “I started showing up day after day and they handed me resources. They helped me get back in school, I was thinking about doing drugs and I didn’t do it because of HOME. They’ve done nothing but help.”

• The task force also heard from Buzz Brazeau, superintendent of Central School District in Independence, Ore.

Central School District is home a trauma-informed care pilot program with a health center offering everything from check-ups to dental care and even mental health services, each of the five schools has its own mental health workers. Trauma-informed care is a treatment framework that involves understanding, recognizing and responding to all types of trauma.

Brazeau said the foundation of the approach was, in part, a response to the sometimes misguided emphasis on absenteeism.

“Sometimes we have what I call the ‘Heisman approach’ of pushing students away who return to classes,” said Brazeau referencing the stance portrayed in college’s football’s most widely known trophy. “When a student comes back after too many absences, we lecture them or send them to a principal’s office. We need to have a model with the proper supports so that when a staff member is ready to care, they are able to welcome back a student and provide medical, dental and counseling services. That means when the window opens up between when students are listening to us and wanting to learn that they are able to learn.”

• Jayne Downing, executive director of the Center for Hope and Safety (CHS), also spoke to board members about the need to keep victims of domestic violence in mind when they make their final plans and recommendations.

“Last year, our program alone had more than 20,000 contacts with victims of domestic abuse,” Downing said. “They often are not going to be the people on the corner. If they are not with us, they are in other shelters or doubling-up with other individuals and we don’t want to see resources taken away from the survivors of domestic violence.”

Downing said the answer may be as simple as dedicating a few beds of any new shelter to victims of domestic violence.

CHS recently completed fundraising for a new confidential emergency shelter and purchased the old Greyhound building in downtown Salem. CHS’s goal is to turn the Greyhound site into a mixed use building with resource services and job-training programs on the ground floor and two levels of transitional housing above it.