Seven-year-old Luke Perrin and his father, Robert Perrin, 35, slept Tuesday night in the bushes behind the Walmart Supercenter on West 11th Avenue in Eugene.
It rained “pretty much the whole night,” Perrin said.
He and Luke had only a blanket and a tarp for warmth and shelter.
On Wednesday, sitting in the office of his son’s school counselor, Perrin said his “happy-go-lucky kid” didn’t mind.
“He slept through the night, and he was fine,” Perrin said. “He thought we were camping.”
Luke is one of more than 21,000 homeless students in Oregon, a number that has continued to grow during the past three years.
In fact, the 2015-16 school year yielded a higher count of K-12 homeless students across the state than numbers recorded during the Great Recession, according to data from the Oregon Department of Education.
Last school year, 21,340 homeless students were enrolled in K-12 public schools, or about 3.7 percent of Oregon’s public school population.
The ODE reported the number of homeless pre-kindergarten students in Oregon as 1,929.
Student homelessness is defined under the Elementary and Secondary Schools Act as children and youth who “lack a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence.”
That definition includes those who live in homeless shelters and transitional housing units; share housing with others because of economic hardship; or reside in motels or live in tents or trailers for a lack of alternative, adequate housing, according to the ODE.
The majority of homeless Oregon students — 16,163 during 2015-16 — are in the “shared housing” category. Of those, 2,377 had no adequate shelter, 1,926 homeless students lived in homeless shelters and 1,210 were living in hotels or motels, the ODE reported.
The Bethel district has the highest local percentage of students who are considered homeless under ODE’s standards.
More than 9 percent of the Bethel district’s student body — 524 students — were homeless in the Eugene-Springfield metropolitan area during the 2015-16 school year. The 9.21 percent is just shy of a 2 percent jump from the 2014-15 school year.
The Eugene district saw less than a 1 percent increase since the last school year, with 900 homeless students enrolling during the 2015-16 school year. In the Eugene district’s 2014-15 school year, 810 students — nearly 5 percent of the district’s K-12 student population — were considered homeless.
In the Springfield district, the number of homeless students for 2015-16 was 480, a slight decrease of 11 students from the 2014-15 school year.
But although the state data shows that there seemed to be fewer homeless students in the district, Springfield district homeless-student liaison Janet Thorn said that the reported number likely isn’t accurate.
“I don’t think the number went down because there were fewer homeless students; it went down because we had fewer staff on board the whole year to identify students. The numbers are down because the workload was not what I could keep up with.”
In addition to a lack of district resources, Thorn said families often don’t come forward to self-identify as homeless.
“If they’re not in need of services, we don’t hear about the families living in a doubled up situation,” Thorn said.
Housing costs and other factors
So why does the number of homeless students in Oregon continue to grow, despite an improving economy?
The No. 1 answer in Lane County, according to the homeless-student liaisons at the Bethel, Eugene and Springfield districts: housing costs.
“There’s not enough affordable housing,” said Deborah Daily, the Eugene district’s homeless-student liaison. “There’s an increase in families living in their cars, and owners in the area are choosing to do no-cause evictions … the rental market is very competitive. People don’t have the means to move in, even if they have jobs. They don’t have the money for a down payment or a deposit, and they just can’t find housing.”
Donna Butera, the homeless-student liaison for the Bethel district, said shelters are strained by the demand.
“All of our shelters are full right now, and there’s nowhere for (homeless families) to go,” Butera said. “A lot of families are camping out later in the year, staying in motels and hotels, but then they don’t have rental history and are told they can’t rent a home.”
Unemployment, a lack of good-paying jobs and not enough affordable housing also are factors that contribute to the increasing number of homeless Oregon students, Tricia Yates, the spokeswoman for the Oregon Department of Education, said in a press release Tuesday.
Perrin and Luke faced some of these tribulations at the Eugene Mission after the trailer they were living in was impounded last week. The duo stayed with friends for a couple of nights but then were forced to seek shelter at the mission.
“They said we could stay if I slept in one room and my son stayed in another,” Perrin said, tears in his eyes. “That doesn’t make any sense to me. I’m not going to leave my son with someone I don’t know. I’ve never left my kid with anyone, ever.”
Children younger than age 18 are not permitted to stay on the men’s side of the Eugene Mission, but they are allowed to stay with their mothers on the women’s side of the facility, according to the mission’s website.
School districts step up to help
The good news for students is that public schools are required to provide a certain amount of assistance to homeless youth younger than age 18, and many districts are strongly committed to doing so.
The McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, enacted by Congress in 1987, established the right of homeless youth to have equal access to the same free, appropriate public education provided to other children, Dailey said. The law requires that every district designate a liaison and collect data about the homeless children who are enrolled in K-12 public schools.
Reauthorized under the No Child Left Behind Act, the program works to ensure that homeless children are provided with immediate access to education services, despite the lack of a permanent residence, a supervising parent or legal guardian or records from a previous school.
Luke, who attends McCornack Elementary School in west Eugene, is one of several students there who receive such services.
“This is a really nice school,” Perrin said. “The first school (Luke) went to (in Eugene) … so many people called DHS on me because we didn’t have anything like school supplies and clothes and food. But everyone here (at McCornack) wants to help — not call anyone — just help; they’ve been amazing.”
Although Perrin said that Luke very much enjoys his classmates and teacher, he was forced to say goodbye to the group on Wednesday before catching a bus to Corvallis, where he and his dad hope to gain entry to Community Outreach Inc., a shelter where they could stay together.
But as he entered school counselor Brinda Narayan-Wold’s office on Wednesday and saw his father’s expression, the smile on Luke’s face quickly disappeared.
“Dad, why are you crying?” he asked. “Where are we going?”
As he began to cry, Perrin, who stood in soaking wet clothing from a night spent outside in the bushes, explained to his son that they would be taking a bus to Corvallis that evening.
“OK, that’s fine,” Luke said as his face turned to the ground. “Are we coming back?” he asked.
“I don’t know yet,” Perrin said, and he kissed his son on the head.
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