Tenuous housing hinders east county students

Excellent article by Oregonian newcomer Amanda Waldroupe, published October 20, 2010

Aja Stacy, 14, loves school so much, she would crawl to get there if she had to, she says.

A bubbly and headstrong freshman at Troutdale’s Reynolds High School, Aja is enrolled in all honors classes and plays oboe for the school band. In middle school, she was on the volleyball, track and wrestling teams. She also plans to get involved with dance this year. She explains her busy academic and co-curricular schedule by referring to a weekly schedule in the back of a thick binder. As she talks, her words almost run together, making her pause and speak a bit slower.

Her excitement quickly fades when her living situation is brought up. During the summer before seventh grade, she became homeless. Now she shares a bedroom with her aunt, who is a live-in caregiver. Her father is unemployed and disabled.

Aja insists her tenuous housing situation has not effected her academics. School-based social workers, however, say situations like hers are daunting ones that create challenges for other homeless students. Many miss days of school, cannot find transportation, cannot complete homework and sometimes simply disappear.

Growing problem

And it is a problem that is growing. The number of homeless students in east Multnomah County school districts — Centennial, David Douglas, Gresham-Barlow, Parkrose and Reynolds — increased by 23 percent from the 2008-2009 school year to the 2009-2010 school year, according to Oregon Department of Education data.

Gresham-Barlow saw the highest increase: 40 percent. Reynolds increased by 34 percent to 754 homeless students in the 2009-2010 school year.

Molly Frye, Reynolds homeless liaison, is seeing those numbers again this year and is worried there are more homeless students she and her colleagues have not yet identified. Many students don’t admit they are homeless out of shame. Aja says Frye “had to get it out of me” when they first met.

Frye says the numbers are growing because of the economy, because poverty is increasing in east county and because schools are simply getting better at seeing the warning signs — missed days, incomplete homework, poor hygiene, the appearance of anxiety, among others.

Social workers say the increase is so substantial that local service agencies are being turned to for help. Judy Allen, executive director of SnowCap, says the social agency started a new mobile food pantry Aug. 1.

“If they’re well-fed, they can focus on their lessons,” Allen says.

Substantial hurdles

Homeless students, Frye says, face many obstacles for keeping up with academics.

“They’re focusing on their hunger, and situations where they might be evicted or housing may be tenuous,” Frye says. “And if you have to help out at home, or if you have a job, it’s hard to do your homework consistently.”

Aja says she has to “go around and do stuff other kids don’t have to worry about.” At times, a “feeling on your mind” of anxiety, worry, sadness or disbelief manifests itself, she added.

Frye works with students, even making home visits, to make sure they are attending school, doing well and connecting them with whatever services they need to help succeed academically. In Aja’s case, Frye helps her get a monthly bus pass so the 10- to 15-minute daily bus ride from where she is staying is free.

Other organizations are helping. Last year, Gresham’s East Hill Church donated $12,500 to Gresham-Barlow and $7,500 to Reynolds to give $100 Ross Dress for Less gift cards to homeless students. Last summer, the church also gave $3,000 to Reynolds to buy 300 calculators for students who couldn’t afford them.

And the church expects to open a new clothing closet for homeless students Nov. 9.

Aja does not expect to live with her father again. But she can continue counting on her aunt and is determined to continue not letting her living situation affect her school life.

“It’s rough,” Aja says, “but I keep my head held high.”