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Helping homeless teens earn their diplomas

The city of Gresham is partnering with Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon and the Gresham-Barlow School District to give homeless teens a stable environment while they earn their high school diploma.

Tera Cleland, who oversees East Metro Mediation, saw a presentation of the program, called Second Home, at a mediators conference and has championed it as a necessary program for the city.

Essentially, Second Home helps high school students without a home or involved parent find temporary housing with volunteer home providers.

“These are good kids in a tough situation, whatever it may be, but they want to finish school,” Cleland said. “This collaboration is key because we can help them achieve their goal and help raise awareness and action around youth homelessness.”

Second Home, which operates under the umbrella of Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon, already has established this program in Beaverton and also plans to launch in Lincoln City.

“We’re excited to see the program expand into Gresham with such community support,” said Jennifer Pratt, Second Home project manager.

The Gresham-Barlow School District has 287 students, so far, who are eligible for federal unstable housing resource assistance for the 2014-15 school year. Of the 287 students, 59 are identified as unaccompanied homeless youths.

Pratt said the program is purposely designed to expand slowly, and will likely start with helping one or two kids this year.

“We like to build slowly to make sure we’re careful and putting in the right safeguards as we move forward,” Pratt said. “When you’re dealing with kids’ lives and home providers’ lives, you want to be very careful.”

Students and home providers are given a chance to interview each other before deciding on a rental agreement together, with the help of a mediator. Second Home staff and mediation staff also follow up with home visits.

The program does not extend past high school graduation, but Pratt said many times home providers work out an agreement to let the students stay for the summer until college and sometimes beyond.

“We’re looking for healthy relationships that these kids can experience and then take with them into life beyond their teenage years,” Pratt said. “For a lot of them, they haven’t experienced that.”

Gresham is recruiting volunteer home providers. To qualify, providers must be 18 or older and able to provide a bed and meals. Everyone, including the high school students, must pass a background check.

“When a student has their basic needs met, and someone who supports them it can make all the difference,” said April Olson, director of the Gresham-Barlow School District federal programs.

Pratt said the success of the program is due to the connections that students and families forge while living together.

“The real heart of the program is the students and home providers,” Pratt said. “They exhibit such courage and determination and openness that their success is really due to their hard work and generosity. What’s exciting to us is it seems to pull the best out of people in the community.”

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