Homeless students rising because of housing crisis, advocates say

PORTLAND, Ore. – Advocates who work with homeless kids in Portland schools say the city’s housing crisis is contributing to the rising number of homeless students.

“The biggest factor is the lack of affordable housing,” said Marti Heard, a McKinney Vento homeless program liaison for public schools in North and Northeast Portland. “As Portland has gentrified, the rents have gone up dramatically and we are seeing families priced out.”

A report released Tuesday by the Oregon Department of Education shows there are more homeless students in Oregon now than during the recession. In Portland, there are 1,434 homeless kids in public schools and another 533 in Pre-K programs.

Background: More homeless students now than during recession

Although Portland’s economy is better than it’s been in years, wages have remained stagnant among renters. Meanwhile, housing prices have skyrocketed and families who have been able to pay rent in the past are seeing their homes become unaffordable.   

For people who work with homeless kids every day, the story is about more than numbers.

“It’s very troubling. We are seeing some alarming things,” Heard said. “Because of displacement or moving around, kids are falling behind.”

Not having a reliable place to sleep at night means that kids often don’t get enough sleep. Homeless kids may not have regular meals, and school supplies aren’t on the top of their parents’ shopping lists.

Those factors impact school performance. The ODE report showed that homeless students scored at least 20 percentage points behind students overall on math, science and English language tests.

Mary Evans, who helps homeless students and families at Woodlawn Elementary in Northeast Portland, said it’s difficult for students to excel in school when they worry about where they will sleep or when they will eat.    

“It hurts their academics. Their focus isn’t school work. It’s survival,” she said. “We want kids to come to school excited to learn and have a full night’s rest and food in their stomachs. Kids that don’t have stable housing – their first concern isn’t that I have a sharpened pencil in my backpack. It’s where am I going to sleep tonight when I leave school.”

Homelessness can happen for many reasons but recently, Evans said she’s seen legal no-cause evictions hit families the hardest.

“I’ve had kids tell me, ‘The people who own our home said we have to move out because they’re going to tear it down,’” she said. “Families with young kids are given such a short period of time to find housing. Parents want kids to stay at the school they’re at because they have a community here, but housing prices in this area have skyrocketed so it’s much harder to find housing in the area.”

Heard works with about 30 schools in North and Northeast Portland through the federal McKinney-Vento program, connecting students and families with clothing, school supplies, and health care. She also tries to get families into shelters and affordable housing but because the market is so tight, she often signs people up for wait lists instead.

“It’s frustrating and overwhelming,” she said. “There are a lot of agencies, shelters and programs in Portland but there are completely maxed out.”

Although the city’s lack of affordable housing isn’t going to drastically change soon, Heard said there are ways people can help homeless students by donating to food pantries like the Oregon Food Bank and neighborhood nonprofits that help homeless families. Some schools, like Woodlawn, also accept cash donations that they can directly give to families at risk of homelessness. 

Related: Inside Portland's emergency shelter for families


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