Photo by Gwendal Cottin
In Oregon, an estimated 2,660 people in families experienced homelessness in 2020, according to an estimate from the Housing and Urban Development Annual Homeless Assessment Report. The same report estimates 1,314 unaccompanied youth (homeless kids and teens without families) in Oregon.
They aren’t just the people on the side of the road holding cardboard signs, or the people in tents next to the highway. There are people our age, teenagers, who are homeless. You may even know someone struggling with homelessness. You may pass them in the halls or sit next to them in class, and you would never know.
The reasons someone our age may be experiencing homelessness vary– anything from a parent losing a source of income to the family losing their house. There may even be kids living alone without their families. These kids are known as unaccompanied youths.
“They have conflict with their parents or guardians or foster care parents and then they run away, and sometimes they get displaced because there’s some disagreement circumstances happening in their home said Phoua Xiong, who helps homeless youth with resources through Portland Public Schools.
Xiong works for a program called Title X Mickinney Vento, which provides education resources to homeless youth.
“Pretty much what we do is… identify who is homeless within the school district,” said Britany Jaramillo, another PPS McKinney Vento liaison. “And then from that point on … connection and removal of barriers is what we prioritize, so making sure that our families are connected to both school and community resources.” Jaramillo and Xiong’s jobs are to help coordinate f resources, specifically educational resources, to kids in our community facing homelessness.
According to Xiong, some of these unaccompanied youths stay with friends, some may have a car that they can live out of, and some stay in youth shelters in our area. For kids with their families experiencing homelessness, they may also be living in a car or with friends, or they may be camping. Tents are one thing Title X coordinators like Xiong are able to provide for families if need be.
Jaramillo said that they are able to provide things like food, clothing, shoes, winter coats, blankets as well as hygiene items like shampoo, soap, toothpaste and menstrual products.
“Anything that’s culturally specific to whatever a family or student would identify as,” Jaramillo added. “If a family were to request for that, they don’t want that to be because they’re part of a different culture that they wouldn’t have access to it.” Families may also be provided laundry cards to access laundromats, and according to Phoua Xiong, they may also be provided gift cards to get their own clothing.
One of the main focuses of the Mickinney Vento program, however, is to provide educational resources for students facing homelessness. So what is happening right now, during online, at home school, to help with their education?
“It’s been a challenge for every student and every family, with our families who are houseless it’s been even more of a hardship,” said Jaramillo. “Having that stability of having even a place to sit down and do work has been hard for families, as well as the technology piece.”
The school district provided Chromebooks and wifi devices, but then there’s the issue of charging them and also having a place to sit down and do school from. The Title X liaisons were able to provide desks for that.
One of the most difficult challenges with online school is the lack of contacts families may feel they have. Jaramillo said “Now that schools are closed, they didn’t know who to contact, like, ‘Where do I go to get this kind of support,” Jaramillo said. “Usually they would go to the school counselor or even the school social worker, and not having easy access to them has enabled them to get more in contact with us to be that person for them.”
She also said if they were to have technology issues they can contact her and her colleagues to put them through to someone who can help fix the tech issues.
According to Phoua Xiong, The McKinney Vento liaisons can be the middlemen for many resources.
“We can give them support and direct them to the next step of who they need to see,”: she said. “Who can sit down with them who’s closer to them?”
Both Xiong and Jaramillo agreed that school attendance is down among homeless youth. Whether that’s because of a lack of resources or a lack of stability in their living situation really depends.
“It has been a challenge for them, it definitely has been,” Jaramillo said. “And some of them haven’t been able to do school like their peers and unfortunately they will fall behind. It’s our responsibility as the school district to now start looking at what we are going to do for our most vulnerable students that really have missed out on a lot of schoolwork during this time.”
One plan that is in the works is to have more summer programming set up to offer support and to help get students caught up. However, nothing is set in stone yet, and district officials are still exploring their options.
Another challenge posed by online school is identifying students who need the McKinney Vento assistance. Before COVID, the most common way of identifying those who needed support was through teachers and staff at the school.
According to Xiong, students generally tell a trusted staff member about a difficult living situation and the staff member can then get them in contact with the Title X coordinators.
“With COVID, we realized that we weren’t getting as many referrals from the schools because schools were closed and there was less engagement between parents and staff,” Jaramillo said.
This obviously posed a major problem. “And so what whe did is we created a self-referral, Google form online for parents to be able to self identify if they were in a homeless situation,” said Jaramillo.
After filling out their information, depending on what district they were in, a Title X coordinator could contact them to get them the support they need. There are also still resources in the community working with families who are able to connect them to the McKinney Vento program.
If you or someone you know is facing homelessness and needs assistance and resources, you can contact Wells’s Title X McKinney Vento Liaison Phoua Xiong at [email protected] or click on this link to the McKinney Vento resource page. To get into a shelter, a family must call 211 to get screened and put on the waiting list for a shelter, or go to 211info.org.