By ERIC A. HOWALD
Of the Keizertimes

The Keizer City Council was hit with some alarming numbers regarding homelessness in the city’s student population at a November work session.

In the 2016-17 school year, there were 61 homeless McNary High School students, another 19 at Claggett Creek Middle School and a dozen more at Whiteaker Middle School. The situation hasn’t improved.

“There are many more this year than last year,” said Julie Conn-Johnson, the Salem-Keizer district homeless liaison.

KEIZERTIMES/Andrew Jackson

In recent months, local homelessness advocates have tried to get a better handle on the actual numbers in the area and the homeless student population is just one component of the larger picture.

Salem-Keizer School District also works closely with HOME Youth and Resource Center in Salem to ensure that the area’s homeless youth are receiving the needed attention. In a recent 100-day challenge, members of several local service and law enforcement agencies compiled a list of 231 homeless youth in the area, but many of the students don’t always conform to traditional stereotypes of sleeping on sidewalks.

“Only about 5 to 10 percent are living on the street, the majority are couch-surfing and there is no one looking out for them,” said Tricia Ratliff, HOME program director. “What making that list told us was that we had to do better at cross-referring. Every youth accessing services at one site should be accessing services at other sites”

Homeless students are identified in a variety of ways. Teachers and counselors notify the district when they suspect someone is housing insecure, friends of the students may also seek help on behalf of someone who is homeless. Sometimes students give their school’s address as their permanent one, which is another tell. There are also some homeless families willing to ask for help or assistance at the school itself.

What happens after a student is found to be struggling for shelter can also be a delicate matter.

“Even telling teachers or counselors isn’t something that happens pro forma. We let food services know and the student immediately gets qualified for a free meal program,” Conn-Johnson said.

The district concentrates on getting the students enrolled or re-enrolled at school, a steady source of meals and providing them with school supplies and transportation if needed.

HOME, which is operated by the Mid-Willamette Valley Community Action Agency, is a drop-in center where homeless youth can connect with other support services and spend some time commiserating or studying out of the elements, but it only operates between noon and 7 p.m. Monday through Friday. The area’s first dedicated youth shelter, Taylor’s dedicated youth shelter, Taylor’s House, was just recently brought into the fold and can only accommodate 12 residents.

The reality on the ground for most homeless youth is one of isolation, invisibility and even victimization, said Ratliff. One-in-three youths who leave home will be approached or lured into sex trafficking within 48 hours and those statistics hold true even in Marion County.

“Survival sex is a big thing and that’s trading your body as currency for the other things needed to get by while you are homeless,” Ratliff said. “Shelter, security, some of it is substance related, but their body is the one thing they have that can’t be taken away from them.”

If a homeless youth tries to stay enrolled in school, they tend to isolate themselves and try to become invisible, Ratliff said. Some have learned to work the system, too. As long as a student attends class one out of every nine days, the district won’t drop them from the rolls. But, even shorter absences add up over time, and can result in poor performance when the student is present.

“If a student misses two days a month, they’ve missed a month of school by the end of the school year. If that happens every year, they’ve missed a full year of school by the time they reach ninth grade,” Conn-Johnson said.

Ratliff credited Keizer for efforts like the clothing closets available in local schools and program’s like the Keizer Chamber of Commerce Giving Baskets, but she’s more recently become an advocate for longer-term involvement to actually end the problem.

“We are in the habit of pointing people toward resources, but these homeless youth need someone to see them through. For our part, we’ve been working on softer hand-offs where we take the kids to the place they need to go rather than giving them a bus ticket. In the bigger picture, we don’t need a basket of stuff as much as we need to help the youth find the way to stability,” Ratliff said. (For one example of how this is being done in other communities, see the related article on this page).

She and Conn-Johnson are also doing what they can to encourage conversation.

“Don’t be silent. The more we get the word out the closer we get to removing the stigmas and working on real solutions,” Conn-Johnson said.