LA GRANDE — The number of students in Union County school districts lacking stable shelter and food has gone down, but even one “homeless” student is too many, according to local educators.
Oregon Department of Education classified a total of 176 students in the La Grande, Imbler and North Powder school districts in 2018-19 as homeless. The La Grande School District had 153 homeless students in 2018-19, according to the department’s latest homeless student count, while North Powder had 14 and Imbler had nine.
Homeless students, as defined by the Oregon Department of Education under the federal McKinney-Vento Act, are those who are living in a shelter; are unsheltered, which means they are living in cars, trailers, tents or substandard housing; living in a hotel; sharing housing with another family: or are living with someone other than their legal guardian.
Kathleen McCall, the La Grande School District’s youth in transition liaison, said the school district’s homeless numbers are down from previous years.
“They fluctuate. As our economy does better, so do our families. We are seeing less homelessness right now, and we are grateful for that,” McCall said.
La Grande High School Principal Brett Baxter said the plight of his school’s homeless students is always on the minds of his faculty and staff, who passionately want to reach out to them.
“They dig deep to meet the needs of students,” Baxter said.
The principal noted that earlier this school year his staff learned of two LHS students who were living with several children and three adults in a residence without furniture. Faculty and staff stepped forward to provide the home with furniture, including a queen-size mattress and a kitchen table and chairs. The also were given food boxes and gift cards.
Stories like this are not uncommon at LHS, Baxter said. He said faculty and staff are always on the lookout for students to help. Reports like the one from the Oregon Department of Education make it easier for them to become aware of such students.
“It helps puts them on our radar,” Baxter said.
Taking steps to assist students in need, Baxter said, helps them overcome obstacles on the way to fulfilling their promise.
“I think every student has boundless potential,” the principal said.
He also said reaching out to students who have substandard living conditions goes a long way toward helping them do well compared to their more fortunate peers who do not face such struggles.
“It levels the playing field,” Baxter said.
It is not right, Baxter said, that students have to deal with the stress of a substandard living environment.
“They should be worrying instead about whether they will get an A or a B in math or English,” Baxter said.
The principal is never surprised by the extent people at LHS will go to help students in need.
“Everyone here got into this business to help kids,” Baxter said.
Chelsee Rohan, a counselor at the high school, said when staff learn about students who are homeless, they make sure the students know about the services available at the school, such as its food pantry and the opportunity to get free clothing from LHS’s student-run clothing store, Deja Blue.
LHS social studies teacher John Lamoreau said he knows of a number of students who are homeless or are close to homeless. They often do not speak of their plight, but their tired, disheveled looks give them away.
“You can tell which students have slept on a couch on the night because of their appearance,” he said.
Lamoreau has taught at LHS for nine years and during that time has known students who have dealt with deplorable circumstances.
“I have had students who have slept in tents and cars,” he said.
To help homeless students, Lamoreau said, many teachers and staff buy clothes and food for them, which they keep in their classrooms for when they needed.
Lamoreau speaks with pride about how faculty and staff at LHS continue to support homeless students.
“This school does a really good job of reaching out,” Lamoreau said. “LHS has an incredible loving staff that really cares about the students in our school. It is an honor to work here.”
Like Baxter, Lamoreau said helping students with challenging home environments gives them an opportunity to succeed.
“If a student is not performing well, there is usually a reason behind it. If you address it, performance will follow,” Lamoreau said.
Angie Lakey-Campbell, superintendent of the Imbler School District, said her school district’s homeless numbers are down because the definition the state uses for homelessness changed to exclude students in foster care.
Lakey-Campbell said those who reach out to students from struggling home environments include the district’s staff and its high school FFA and Future Business Leaders of America chapters. She noted the FFA and FBLA chapters adopt families in need and donate food, clothing and other basic necessities. Lakey-Campbell also praised local churches that provide clothing, food and other items to families in need, many of whom have school-age children.
North Powder School District Superintendent Lance Dixon said when staff become aware of a need, the student is taken to Riki’s Room. This is a room stocked with clothing for students in need and named in honor of the late Riki Anderson, a former teacher in the North Powder School District.
Dixon also noted the school district has a $250 fund set aside for students who, for instance, need help purchasing school supplies. The school district takes other steps to help students in need, including providing transportation to and from school.
Dixon said his staff works hard to connect families in need with school-age children to assistance services provided by Union County and other government entities.
“We help make sure our homeless students’ basic needs are taken care of,” he said.
Dixon said students whose basic needs are met are in a position for optimal learning and thus have an opportunity to rise above what may be impoverished circumstances.
“The more you know, the more you can change your life,” Dixon said.
The superintendent said the steps his staff take to reach out to its homeless students ties in with a strongly held belief that runs throughout his district.
“If you show kids you care, you will get a lot more out of your students,” Dixon said.