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The number of homeless students jumped to 417 as state numbers reach an all-time high.

HILLSBORO TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO - Olga Acuña, Hillsboro School Districts director of community outreach, says that a rise in homless students isnt unexpected, given rising housing costs across the area. Pictured, teacher Brett Cunningham speaks with 5th-graders on the first day of school at Orenco Elementary in September.The number of homeless Hillsboro School District students rose by two percent in the 2016-17 school year to 417 students, according to numbers released last week by the Oregon Department of Education.

Statewide, the number of homeless students across Oregon reached an all-time high of 22,541, the department reported last Wednesday, a 5.6 percent increase from the year before.

Olga Acuña, Hillsboro School District's director of community outreach and federal programs, said she hasn't dissected the numbers just yet — but she has her suspicions as to the cause of the rise in student homelessness.

"The fact is that affordable housing and affordable rentals have become much more difficult to identify," Acuña said. "We have seen an increase in families not able to find a place to live, and some families are having to move to find a place outside of the district."

The data is from the 2016-17 school year and uses the federal definition of homeless, which can include children doubled-up with other families or other temporary housing.

"Children come from families who have lost homes, families who live in cars, unaccompanied youth, couch-surfing or living with other family, or students in the foster care system," Acuña said.

During the federal replacement of No Child Left Behind, the Every Student Succeeds Act reconfigured some of the benefits and definitions for homeless students. Now called McKinney-Vento, the programs require districts to designate a liaison to homeless students and offer a range of services to keep them in school, such as transportation and school supplies.

Oregon received $502,000 in the competitive federal grants for 11 programs serving 47 of its nearly 200 public school districts.

Acuña, a former Hillsboro city councilor, said the district regularly checks in with students known to be struggling with housing insecurity.

"We are ensuring our liaisons and advocates, working with community partners, are identifying safe places for students," she said.

Hillsboro schools have hired two student advocates using McKinney-Vento funding, Acuña said. The advocates touch base with students once a month.

"When students lose stable housing, their educational stability is impacted — hugely," Acuña said. "That's one of the things we become most concerned about. If they don't have stable housing it's more difficult to get to school and get access to the support they need."

It can also be difficult for advocates to find students that are mobile, she said.

The Oregon Department of Education notes that housing is not just an urban problem. Nine out of 10 of the highest percentages are in tiny rural districts with fewer than 250 students.

"There is no doubt that some of the increase comes from raising awareness of the importance of reporting homeless student data and federal programs available under the Every Student Succeeds Act," said Dona Bolt, McKinney-Vento coordinator for Oregon, in a news release. "But other factors such as a lack of affordable housing and not enough family-wage jobs are contributing to the problem."

California and Washington are also reporting large increases in homeless student populations.

The districts with the largest populations of homeless youth are Portland Public Schools, with 1,509 students, and Beaverton School District with even more at 1,522.

In total, there were 8,253 students reported homeless in the 25 school districts in Washington, Multnomah and Clackamas counties. That's several hundred more than last year.

Pamplin Media Group reporter

Shasta Kearns Moore contributed

to this story.

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