Housing crisis hits students especially hard

It may sound far-fetched that 1,364 students in the Medford School District are homeless, but it is reality. And the number of homeless students is growing. Thanks to the efforts of the Maslow Project, those students are getting help with basic necessities and with schoolwork, but the need for affordable housing continues.

It's important to realize that most of these children are not living under bridges. The official federal definition includes those who "lack a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence."

Of the Medford total, more than 1,000 are living in a home with at least one other family, 139 are in a shelter, 80 are staying in a hotel or motel and 94 are unsheltered. Most are with their families, not on their own.

Still, a stable home environment is one of the biggest single factors that determines whether a student will succeed in school, struggle or simply drop out. Students who don't have a permanent residence often don't have access to school supplies, computers or an appropriate place to do homework.

Medford is not alone in seeing a growing number of homeless students. The statewide number — 21,352 — is the highest ever. But Jackson County has the second-highest number of homeless students in Oregon.

Schools have no control over the underlying problem: a lack of affordable rental housing and an extremely low vacancy rate. Mary Ferrell, director of the Maslow Project, says even families who find jobs and are ready to be self-sufficient can't find housing, forcing them to remain homeless longer than they otherwise would.

The Maslow Project does what it can to provide services to homeless students, including mental-health counseling, food, clothing, laundry and access to computers. Those efforts are paying off: Medford's four-year graduation rate among homeless seniors was 51 percent this year, much higher than the state and national averages. And 70 percent of the Medford seniors Maslow served last year graduated. That's a remarkable accomplishment.

But as successful as those efforts are, they are treating the symptoms of homelessness, not the root causes. Much of the problem here and across the state is the result of the housing crisis, which is real and can't be solved by school districts or nonprofit agencies.

Lawmakers convening in Salem next year will have a long list of problems to tackle, starting with a state budget shortfall that will make it hard to fund schools adequately, making it even harder to meet the needs of students who don't have a permanent home. The legislative agenda must include a concerted effort to ease the housing crunch.

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