COOS COUNTY — The number of homeless students across the state is up for the fourth year in a row.

In a press release from the Oregon Department of Education, there were 22,541 students of the 2016-17 school year who “lacked a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence” which is how the federal government classifies homelessness.

“That represents 3.9 percent of the entire public K-12 population,” the release stated.

For the Coos Bay School District, Homeless Liaison Melinda Torres said there were 300 homeless students in the district identified during enrollment. Since the start of the school year, a handful dropped out.

As of now, 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.

For the North Bend School District, Homeless Liaison Ginny Prickett reported 30 homeless students.

“But I believe there are more that have simply not been identified yet,” she said. “The numbers are evenly spread across the district.”

It's important to note that three years ago the North Bend School District over counted its Free and Reduced Lunch students. To qualify for that program, students often must come from needy families.

“The staff had been instructed to have students stand in the breakfast line and take a meal,” the district's business manager Sheri O'Connor said in a public meeting last year, but did not say who gave that instruction or why. “This resulted in the district claiming too many meals and receiving too much revenue. The district was required to pay the state approximately $64,000 because of over claimed meals.”

Last April, the state finished its investigation and told the district it had misappropriated federal food service funds and needed to make more than $60,000 in corrective payments.

Torres also works as the At Risk Kids (ARK) Program manager and has seen the increase both in surrounding school districts and her caseload.

“The most common story I hear is one that could happen to any of us, and it’s that they were one pay check away from being homeless and just fell on bad luck,” she said. “These families try to get on their feet but then something else happens and there always seemed to be a barrier. Then you mix it in with lack of housing, which is a big thing here, and you have a serious problem.”

To help find her ARK clients the housing they need, she sends them to Oregon Coast Community Action (ORCCA). Most of the time it is the only housing option available.

“It’s a two-year waiting list for the Housing Authority,” Torres said. “Some families I’ve been working with have been on the list for over year, almost two years, and are finally at the top of the list. Thing is, they’ve had to struggle and move from place to place until they are next in line.”

For Torres, she is just excited when things finally start to go right for her clients and students. For example, she recently had two families get into housing after living in tents with their children.

“It was heartbreaking for me to see that happen to them,” Torres said. “It’s hard when I don’t have an answer and I’ve done all I can do. That’s the hardest part for me sometimes because they’re all great people who are down on their luck and need a boost.”

According to the ODE press release, “the data available on the Oregon Department of Education (ODE) website shows the problem 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.”

At the North Bend School District, the North Bend Community Foundation helps provide funding that allows the district to purchase clothing and school supplies for its homeless youth. It also works under the McKinny-Vento grant to identify more students so they can get the services they need.

The district also has the Clothes Closet and Food Pantry.

“It seems like there’s a lot of struggling families and students with needs,” said Youth Transition Specialist and Clothes Closet manager Julie Henderson. “I have a lot of families leaving an area due to domestic violence or other issues. It’s all very serious and very heartbreaking.”

At the Clothes Closet, they are constantly looking for teenage clothes. The closet is actually a classroom open certain hours in the day at the North Bend High School, available only for students. Kids can walk in, browse, and pick up any items for free to take with them.

The closet is also always taking donations.

“Every teen is interested in being in style, but they always go for flannel shirts to keep warm,” Henderson said. “They also love superhero stuff and the girls love tights. Personal products are huge, and we need men’s underwear in smaller sizes and sweaters for the colder weather.”

Any donations can be dropped off at the high school located at 2323 Pacific Street in North Bend.

“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,” State McKinney-Vento Coordinator Dona Bolt said. “But other factors such as a lack of affordable housing and not enough family-wage jobs are contributing to the problem.”

(This story was updated to reflect that the North Bend School District's misappropriated funds occurred three years ago and the state investigation ended last year.)

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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