BY CALLEY HAIR Of the News-Times
NEWPORT — One out of every eight students in Lincoln County aren’t certain where they’ll sleep tonight, up from one in nine students by the end of last year.
The number of homeless kids in the region continues to grow, according to a running tally kept by the Lincoln County School District’s Homeless Education and Literacy Project (HELP). And with more than two months left in the school year, that number will keep going up, said HELP Homeless Program Coordinator Katey Townsend.
“I think definitely this year, it’s lack of affordable housing that has increased our numbers in Lincoln County. Because it’s a pretty drastic increase so far,” Townsend said.
During the 2014-15 school year, 717 students were identified as homeless in the district, including 579 in the K-12 schools. The remaining 138 children included younger students, often siblings enrolled in pre-kindergarten programs.
This year, that figure had already reached 707 students by the end of the first semester.
“At the midyear point, we were at the same amount as the whole school year prior,” Townsend said. “When we pulled the numbers up at the end of the semester, we were feeling overwhelmed by the need in the community. The numbers just validated that.”
They hit 817 students by an updated tally on April 11, 2016, with 654 homeless students enrolled in K-12 schools.
“Still, we have an influx of referrals.”
Last year, Lincoln County had already ranked highest in the state for homeless children, according to a 2015 study by Children First for Oregon. Ten percent of Lincoln County’s children were homeless, according to the report, compared with the statewide average of 3.3 percent.
HELP uses the national criteria for identifying a homeless child. Included in that definition are children living in a shelter, a car, a campsite, a motel, or with a friend or family member.
The majority of the reported homeless students are living with friends or family, a situation HELP refers to as “doubled up.” However, those situations often lead to more dire circumstances, Townsend said.
“We see a lot of movement between the categories,” Townsend said. “We have to report on how they were first qualified — the first circumstance in which we met them in the school year.”
This creates some misrepresentation in reporting. While 525 of the reported 817 students are categorized as “doubled up,” many of them have since moved into cars or shelters, Townsend said.
Between this year and last year, HELP didn’t make any changes to its reporting practices, or in how it identifies homeless students. Townsend attributes the spike to a precarious local economy and tough housing market.
“What I’m hearing across the county is that there’s just no place for families to live,” Townsend said. “As soon as a rental gets on the market, it gets snapped up usually the same day.”
The issue is compounded by the region’s seasonal industries, including tourism and fishing, said Lincoln County Commissioner Bill Hall.
“The nature of our economy is a big driver of it. Tourism has so many part-time and low-wage jobs,” Hall said, adding that the average age of a minimum wage employee in the county is 31 years old.
Even for families who could afford to pay the rent on a reasonably priced home, often times that place just doesn’t exist.
“(We’ve) always had a low rental vacancy rate,” Hall said. “For a long time in Lincoln County, it’s been 2 percent. It’s now less than 1 percent.”
He partially credits the recent drop to a rise in technology. The ease of websites like Craigslist and Airbnb made it more convenient — and often more lucrative — for landlords to rent property on a nightly basis.
“What I hear again and again (from) a lot of people who own rentals is that they were renting on a month-to month basis, and they have converted them from monthly rentals to nightly rentals,” Hall said.
The staff at HELP is well acquainted with the region’s rental issues. Homelessness has always pervaded Lincoln County, Townsend said.
However, she said they weren’t entirely prepared for how quickly their enrollment would spike in just a year.
“We couldn’t do this work without community donations, both with people who drop off jackets and shoes and school supplies, or they drop off checks,” Townsend said.
Contact reporter Calley Hair at 541-265-857 1, ext. 211 or firstname.lastname@example.org
The News Times, April 13, 2016 Number 30, Page 1 www.newportnewstimes.com