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State report says 8.5 percentof Gaston students are homeless

New data released by the Oregon Department of Education reveals an 8 percent increase in the number of homeless students in kindergarten through 12th grade in Oregon.

The Gaston School District ranks relatively high on the list. Out of nearly 200 districts in Oregon, Gaston has the 26th highest percentage of homeless students. Gaston had 48 homeless students out of 560 total in the 2014-15 school year, about 8.5 percent of the student population.

“Despite an improving economy, many Oregon families are still struggling just to meet their most basic needs,” ODE Deputy Superintendent Salam Noor said. “Far too many children don’t know where their next meal is coming from or where they will sleep at night.”

Under the federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Education Assistance Act, students are identified as homeless if they are living in a shelter, residing in a motel, sharing housing due to economic hardship or living in an unsheltered situation such as a vehicle, tent or other substandard housing. Much of the statewide 8 percent increase was due to students who identified as “unsheltered.”

Every Oregon school district employs a homeless liaison staffer who identifies and provides services and support to students experiencing homelessness.

Jennifer Oberg is Gaston High School’s secretary and the district’s homeless liaison. She works with the district’s homeless youth and their families, helping them find housing, food and transportation. In the 2014-15 school year, the district saw more homeless students than usual.

Because Gaston is a small district, a few families struggling with homelessness can really boost percentages, Oberg said.

Oberg helps a lot of students who have turned 18 but are still in school. They either don’t want to follow the rules at home, their parents kick them out or their home lives get so bad they have to leave, Oberg said.

Many families she works with “couch surf” between friends or move in with relatives after a parent loses their job and can’t pay rent or lost their house.

Oberg organizes trainings for staff so they can be on the lookout for signs of homelessness in their students. She can help children get free lunches and the district even sets aside money to help buy students gas cards and bus passes. Oberg also often sets families up with Community Action, a Washington County nonprofit that helps families get housing and rent assistance.

The Gaston district also maintains a clothes closet with coats, shoes and other clothing available to students in need. Oberg also connects families with the Oregon Food Bank food pantry in Gaston’s Wapato Valley Church.

Butte Falls School District in Jackson County had the highest percentage of homeless students in 2014-15, coming in at nearly 30 percent. The Forest Grove and Banks school districts saw relatively low percentages of homeless students. About 100 students in the Forest Grove School District, or 1.64 percent, are homeless.

The Banks School District has only seven homeless students, or .63 percent.