COOS COUNTY — Many of today’s students worry about where they are getting their next meal instead of studying for upcoming tests.

Last month, the Department of Education released numbers showing that the state’s student homeless count had reached an all-time high for the fourth year in a row.

When The World took a look at district numbers in Coos County, it was found that the Myrtle Point School District has the largest homeless percentage but are significantly less than they were a year ago.

In the 2016-17 school year, Myrtle Point saw 67 homeless students, which is 11.80 percent of its enrollment. For comparison, in 2015-16 there were 108 homeless students, which was 18 percent.

“The numbers have remained relatively consistent over time, with the exception of a large bulge in the ’15-16 year,” said Superintendent Nannette Hagen in an email to The World.

When asked why, Hagen pointed to economic struggles in the area.

“We have many families who are having difficulty finding living wage jobs in Myrtle Point and transportation for many is a struggle,” she said. “Additionally, the lack of availability of low income housing often creates a situation where families don’t have a choice but to double with friends or family.”

Hagen added that when families double up like that, it is a qualified condition of homelessness under the federal definition says anyone who “lacked a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence” is considered homeless.

“Finally, the substance abuse rate in our area also contributes to our homeless numbers,” she said. “Many lose their housing when they have contact with law enforcement for this reason.”

To help these students, the district offers free breakfast, lunch and a snack every day for those identified. There is also access to free tutoring, free clothes, and food and personal care items.

“At times we have given gas vouchers and other items to help ease the burden of these students,” Hagen said. “We are currently working with Tara Johnson at the Devereux Center on a possible partnership with them to bring some services to Myrtle Point.”

When asked how being homeless affects a child’s education, Hagen said, “How can it not affect it?”

“These children are worrying about every basic need such as food, shelter, clothes . . . as well as dealing with the other issues of stress that are the causes of the homelessness,” she said. “Many times these students have poor attendance as they are often used for family child care or were up late in the shelter or didn’t get to a shelter so were staying in a car. All facets of their life are affected.”

Not only that, but she added that often these kids don’t have a place to do their homework and can’t keep track of their belongings when they move from place to place.

“The relationships they develop with staff are critical because it is often how we learn how we can better serve them,” Hagen said.

The Coos Bay School District comes in second after Myrtle Point in these numbers. At Coos Bay, there were reported by ODE to be 259 homeless students, making 7.80 percent of its enrollment. However, Homeless Liaison Melinda Torres said in a previous interview that there were 300 homeless students in the district identified during enrollment this year but that since the start of the school year a handful dropped out.

As of now, Torres said there are 70 homeless students at the elementary level, 100 in middle school, and 120 in high school, totaling 290. These numbers include unaccompanied youth who are tenting, doubling up, couch surfing, living in a hotel, or anything else that qualifies as homeless.

“They are just kids without their parents because those parents left or these kids were abandoned and had to fend for themselves,” Torres said.

After Coos Bay Schools comes the Coquille School District with 60 homeless students at 6.06 percent, followed by Bandon at 23 homeless students at 3.18 percent.

The North Bend School District came in last in the county with 97 homeless students which is only 2.20 percent of its enrollment.

As previously reported, the ODE press release showed that student homelessness is not confined to Oregon’s urban areas.

“In fact, nine of the 10 districts with the highest rates of homeless students have enrollments of less than 250 students,” the release pointed out. “Oregon’s growing homeless population reflects a trend among West Coast states. California’s homeless student population is up 20 percent since 2014 to more than 200,000 students and Washington saw a double digit percentage increase last year to nearly 40,000 students. Oregon’s increase is 5.6 percent over last year and 19.2 percent since 2014.”

“While the numbers are heartbreaking, our resolve to make sure these students receive the best education possible is unfailing,” Acting Deputy Superintendent Colt Gill said. “Thanks to the hard work of liaisons at school districts and their partners in the communities, we can make the school environment as stable as possible for students who are dealing with difficult challenges outside the classroom.”

Reporter Jillian Ward can be reached at 541-269-1222, ext. 235, or by email at jillian.ward@theworldlink.com. Follow her on Twitter: @JE_Wardwriter.

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