More than 600 students in Douglas County lacked adequate housing last school year, according to data released by the Oregon Department of Education last month.
The students were classified as homeless under the McKinney-Vento Act, a federal grant program for homeless students that helps pay for homeless liaisons, transportation and other items, such as school supplies.
Roseburg Public Schools’ homeless liaison Juliana Marez said when she first started her job in 1996, she had 18 kids on her caseload.
This past school year she had more than 200.
“We’re always looking to improve how we find these kids,” Marez said, adding that Roseburg schools have included training on ways to identify homeless students during the staff’s SafeSchools training.
Some of the indicators could be kids looking disheveled, absenteeism and difficultly doing homework.
The number of students on Oregon meeting the federal definition of homelessness reached an all time high in the 2016-17 school year — 22,541.
That number is down this past school year to 21,756.
But locally, most of the school districts in Douglas County saw an increase in the number of homeless students from the previous school year.
Reedsport had the sixth-highest percentage of homeless students in the state at 18 percent.
Reedsport School District Superintendent Jon Zwemke couldn’t be reached for comment.
The majority of those 128 Reedsport students are doubled up, or sharing housing, while the remainder live in shelters.
That mirrors state data, which shows a majority of students — 16,399 — are sharing housing.
Marez described students living in shared housing as those in a tentative situation.
“You’re only one argument away from homeless,” she said.
In Douglas County School District 4 there were 208 homeless students last school year, up from 138 the school year prior. Those numbers make up less than 4 percent of the student population.
Those considered “doubled up” number 124.
The Mapleton School District in Lane County had the highest percentage of homeless students in the state, with 30 percent of the student body experiencing homelessness.
Statewide, the age group with the largest number of homeless are those in 12th grade.
Marez said older kids watch their parents struggle, so to take a burden off them, they’ll stay with friends.
“There’s some that are bucking the system, but to me that’s rare,” Marez said. “More likely it’s a self sacrifice thing.”
Marez said the county doesn’t have shelters that house entire families, something that she’d like to see.
But her main goal is to keep kids in school, regardless of their living situation.
“Education is the great equalizer,” she said.
Under McKinney-Vento, students get free breakfast and lunch, and transportation to school.
Marez said parents breathe a sigh of relief when they found out their child has a way to get to school, even if they have to move out of the bus service area to find a place to stay.
The transportation gives kids a way to continue attending classes with their friends, Marez said.
What McKinney-Vento doesn’t cover is housing.
Marez said she get parents who call hoping she’ll help them find a home, which is not part of the program.
She refers those parents to section 8 housing, which has a waiting list.
Marez gets choked up when she thinks about the students she’s worked with, often seeing them grow up from kindergarten to graduation.
“The kids really inspire me,” Marez said. “Their personal strength inspires me.”
She said alumni students keep tabs on her and when they found out she was diagnosed with cancer last year, they made bracelets.
“Every single day,” the bracelet — which sits on Marez’s desk — reads. The message included a promise: every day one of her current or former students would contact her.
One child picked berries for her, another mowed her lawn.
“These kids matter. Their lives matter,” Marez said. “And they do pay it forward when they get the chance.”