Estimated read time: 8-9 minutes
SALEM, Ore. (AP) — Melody likes to wear her turquoise flip-flops, complete with matching sunflowers on top, to school.
While some students could simply put on other shoes, or buy flip-flops that might fit better, Melody doesn't necessarily have that option. But when the corners of the dyed, leather-like straps rub on the sides of her feet, it hurts.
Melody, 6, lives with her mother, Carolyn Reitzer, and three siblings — Chance, 5, Destiny, 2, and Nathan, 8 months — at Simonka Place, a shelter that serves homeless women and children in Keizer.
Uncomfortable shoes are only one of the many problems that accompany homelessness, but for students such as Melody, the challenges can be daunting, the Statesman Journal reported (http://stjr.nl/1SAUkFn).
Homelessness can lead to measurable consequences, such as increased dropout rates, as well as things more difficult to grasp, such as feelings of abandonment, discomfort or shame.
More than 20,500 students in Oregon were experiencing homelessness in the 2014-15 school year — an 8 percent increase from the year before, according to the Oregon Department of Education.
The majority of the increase was in the number of students identified as "unsheltered," meaning they live in vehicles, tents or other forms of substandard housing.
About 970 homeless students are in the Salem-Keizer School District.
Without having basic necessities such as shelter and food, these students and families have to navigate a different world than those who do.
Researchers Yvonne Rafferty and Marybeth Shinn found homeless children confront serious threats to their ability to succeed and their future well-being compared to other students.
Some concerns include health problems, developmental delays, anxiety, depression and educational underachievement, according to Rafferty and Shinn.
Factors that may influence these issues include inadequate shelter conditions, instability in residences and shelters and barriers to accessing services that are available.
Instead of focusing on the lesson in math class, these students are calculating where they can sleep that night. Many can't concentrate as their stomachs growl, demanding a breakfast they couldn't get.
Some of these students' thoughts are preoccupied with the desire for new clothes, a shower or a light to do homework by.
For some, school isn't their main priority and their attendance drops.
Young people who experience homelessness are about 87 percent more likely to stop going to school, according to the 2014 "Don't Call Them Dropouts" report by Tufts University.
The overall Salem-Keizer School District graduation rate is 72 percent; however, only 58 percent of homeless seniors in regular high schools in the district graduated in 2014-15.
When Melody was born, Reitzer was newly in remission from a drug addiction.
Melody was taken directly from the hospital by the Department of Human Services and put into foster care as her mother sought treatment.
Reitzer was off drugs for seven years before she relapsed, about a year and a half ago.
When her mother relapsed, Melody was put back into foster care while she attended Mary Eyre Elementary School in Salem.
When Reitzer was able to rejoin her daughter, she decided to keep her in Mary Eyre through the end of the year to help her transition.
During the past six or seven months, Reitzer has been able to get some of the essential things that can become the most challenging for Melody and her siblings — such as hygiene products, diapers, food and school supplies — from the shelter.
Their room at the shelter is a larger corner room, with four twin-size beds, one of which is intended for a future roommate, one small side bed where Destiny can sleep, and a crib for Nathan.
There is a small bathroom with a sink and toilet and an open closet for storage. They have a dresser, on top of which they have a small television that plays VHS tapes.
Reitzer said having a steady routine is difficult without their own home.
"I need to get Melody in bed by 8 p.m., but (curfew) isn't until 9 p.m.," she said. This can keep students such as Melody up at night, making her more tired and less focused in school the next day.
When Melody doesn't take the bus, Reitzer drives her at least 20 minutes each way to get her to school.
Chance goes to Head Start in south Salem.
On a recent morning, Reitzer was trying to get the children into the car to go to school, as Melody tried to fix the left-side mirror that is attached with duct tape. Sometimes she doesn't want to go to school and might sit on the hood of the car in defiance.
But Melody said she loves school, "'cause I can play with Play-Doh." When she grows up, she plans to be a princess. No, correct that, a queen.
Reitzer is seeking more stable housing for her family. She knows her children will do better in school if they have a stable place to call home.
This is difficult even though the economy is improving since people living in poverty have been the last to recover, if at all, from the recession.
Job growth in the United States has averaged more than 250,000 new jobs per month since the fall. Oregon's unemployment rate dropped to 4.5 percent in March, lower than the national rate.
But despite an improving economy, a growing number of Oregon families and youth are still struggling just to meet their most basic needs, said Oregon Department of Education Deputy Superintendent Salam Noor in a statement.
"Far too many children don't know where their next meal is coming from or where they will sleep at night," he said.
Melissa Wisner is the federal programs coordinator for the Salem-Keizer district. She oversees the Students in Transition Educational Program (STEP) in the district, a rebranded form of the federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Education grant program which started in 1987.
Some of the services the program provides include:
Assistance with alternative educational placements and enrollment
Monitoring of grades and attendance
Access to academic support (tutoring, credit recovery, graduation support)
Parental support at school meetings (discipline, diversion)
Transportation via school bus or public transportation
Wisner said she is particularly worried about the unaccompanied youth, which for the area tend to be sixth- through 12th-graders.
"Someone, maybe 12 years old, is navigating school, work, and more without adult leadership," she said. "Some adults have trouble navigating this."
The STEP program pairs regional advocates in the district with the families and students in need to help them identify and eliminate barriers.
They also connect them with school and local resources to help them find food, housing, clothing and more.
Wisner said families living paycheck to paycheck can be tipped over the edge with an unexpected or emergency expense, making them suddenly become homeless.
And as housing prices increase in areas like Portland, families flock to areas like Salem, she said, where housing tends to be less expensive. But that may increase competition for local affordable housing.
Irma Oliveros serves as the STEP program assistant and homeless liaison for the district.
For the past 12 years, she has helped families and students in the community transition to a more stable living and learning environment.
She said most people don't realize that many of these families are able to obtain housing vouchers, but aren't able to use them because they can't find a place to rent.
Additionally, some have poor credit, multiple past evictions or even criminal records that prevent them from being able to rent.
"Just building more houses, yes, that's needed, but that isn't the only problem," she said.
Oliveros and her team of four advocates work with the families every day to address their immediate needs.
She and her team are often out of the office visiting schools, homes and shelters to meet the students and families. Sometimes, they have to meet at fast food restaurants or other unconventional locations since the people they help might not have a consistent place to go.
She said the schools' registrar, counselors and administration are aware which students are eligible for the program, but teachers only know on a need-to-know basis.
Oliveros said each advocate works with 200-300 children and families, so they are working to expand their staff as the need grows.
One challenge the team faces, Oliveros said, is the limitations outside of the academic year.
On weekends, holidays and breaks, including summer vacation, the program is somewhat put on hold with the district closed; however, the families in need still require support.
"Homelessness doesn't end at 5 p.m., or in June when school lets out," she said.
But when they can help, the results can be transformative to both the families and the advocates.
Oliveros remembers working with one unaccompanied youth in the district who was unable to stay at home due to "an unstable home life."
In order for him to be successful in school, she said, he felt he couldn't stay with his parents.
Though he eventually found someone to support him, he had to juggle all the aspects of his life for a long time on his own.
With the help of STEP, he was able to get a bus pass, get permission to compete in his school's athletics without parental permission or proof of address, pay for his athletic gear, have a meal available to him after games and more.
He eventually went on to graduate and earn a full-ride scholarship for college athletics.
Maybe this could be Melody's future — success and stability.
With money from welfare, Social Security and food stamps, Reitzer has been able to save enough to look for a house to rent.
Though a modest amount is in her savings, she smiled and said, "(This is) amazing for me."
The family has gone to a handful of open houses to see where would be a good fit for them and look forward to soon having a place to call home.
Information from: Statesman Journal, http://www.statesmanjournal.com
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