Eugene Weekly : Coverstory : 7.1.2010


The Dispossessed
No home, no money, nowhere to be in Lane County
by Camilla Mortensen

It’s hard to say just how many homeless kids there are in Lane County. It depends on how you define homeless, or on how the kids themselves define it. Some of the kids don’t want to admit they are homeless, or that they live in cars or motels because they don’t want their friends at school to know. Others call themselves travelers or houseless. 

All of them have a story, a reason they are on the streets. Even for those who talk about how cool it is to be free, homelessness is not always a choice. “I think there’s a stigma attached. They’re not in these situations because they’re choosing to necessarily to be. More often than not they’re in these situations because that’s what their life presented them,” says Liz Schwarz, program director for runaway and homeless youth at Looking Glass Youth & Family Services.

Janet Beckman, homeless liaison for Brattain House. Photo by Todd Cooper.

For some of the kids, when they talk about their freedom and independence, “They’ll spin it, and it’s what they have, and it makes them feel empowered to say ‘Yeah, this is totally what I want,’ even if it’s not totally how they want to do it,” Schwarz says. She adds, for a teen, it’s a big deal to be independent. 

The federal definition — Title 42, Chapter 119, Subchapter I of the U.S. Code — defines a homeless person as “an individual who lacks a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence,” as well as someone whose primary nighttime residence is a temporary shelter or institution, or “a public or private place not designed for, or ordinarily used as, a regular sleeping accommodation for human beings.”

But Janet Beckman, the homeless liaison for Springfield Public Schools’ Brattain House, says they use a much more broad definition to ensure that homeless kids are safe and able to keep attending school. It includes kids who aren’t in the custody of their parents, kids awaiting foster care placement, kids living in motels and kids whose families have had to move in with friends or relatives because they have lost their homes. 

Schwarz says Looking Glass has a liberal definition as well.  “Anytime that there’s an unstable — they could get kicked out at any time — or unsafe situation, or if they’re sleeping outside or in a place not meant for sleeping in.” She says the services are very low barrier, it’s not about labeling the kids as homeless, but about getting them the help they need.

According to the statewide one night homeless count in January, Lane County had eight homeless pregnant teens under 17; 125 unaccompanied youth under 17; 183 single adults aged 18-23; 288 single-parent families with kids totaling 450 children age 17 and under; and 168 two-parent families with 308 kids under 17. Of the homeless kids counted, 339 were in kindergarten through fifth grade; 159 were in middle school; and 203 were in high school. Ten kids were in an unknown grade and 182 kids were not in school. Estimates based on school enrollment and kids who access homeless services range from 1,700 to over 2,000 juveniles who are homeless in Lane County, and that’s not including the kids who don’t access services or don’t get noted in the count.

In Oregon in 2010, children now comprise 31 percent of the state’s homeless population, according to Oregon Housing and Community Services. There was a 33 percent increase in homeless kids statewide this year.

Under the federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act homeless kids must have access to education. Beckman says last year Brattain House reported 124 unaccompanied youth.

Springfield gives middle and high school kids free bus passes and tries to make sure their basic needs are met. Brattain House has a clothing exchange, a shoes, socks and underwear program through the PTAs, hygiene supplies and helps with school supplies. Overhearing Katelynn Moss, age 15 and living in cars and motels with her mother and two sisters, wistfully say she had wanted to try out for cheerleading, but it was too expensive, Beckman leaned over and quietly assured her that she would help her find a way to get the money. 

Homeless or potentially homeless kids in the schools are identified through counselors, Beckman says, or they drop in at Brattain House. Springfield has teamed up with Looking Glass, which has drop-in hours at its 941 W. 7th Avenue location off Blair Boulevard in Eugene, to provide hours at Brattain House as well. The cramped quarters houses five programs including the Family Resource Center Program and the McKinney-Vento Program for homeless youth. Beckman says that Brattain House is applying for grants to try to develop a single resource center for the various programs designed to help Springfield’s vulnerable families. 

Looking Glass programs include New Roads and Station 7, the latter so named because it used to be a firehouse. It still has its firepole. Station 7, Schwarz says, is aimed at the 11-to-18 age group. It’s an emergency shelter as well as housing for the chronically homeless youth, and lets kids stay there up to 21 days. It offers reconciliation services to try to help get kids back together with families and mental health services on site. They try to help the youth move from Station 7 into stable housing and will help with things like a deposit and first month’s rent. 

New Roads is a drop-in center, Schwarz says, aimed at youth 11 to 21 years old. It also has a drop-in school aimed at kids trying to get into 4J schools, dropouts and kids trying to make up credits or get their GED. New Roads also offers meals, showers and laundry, she says, “All the basic needs you can imagine.”

She says New Roads has case management services for youth trying to get employment or housing. They also operate their street outreach out of the same building. They send out six shifts a week downtown, “to try to find the youth where they’re at.” They supply food, fruit snacks (“that’s usually what they’re after first,” she says), survival items, socks, shampoo, deodorant and sometimes things like sleeping bags and tents. 

Just as importantly, the 7th Avenue drop-in center gives the kids access to mail, an address and a phone, Schwarz says. The youth can check email and hopefully connect with friends and family. 

There are not many rules, she says, “We just want people to be safe and respectful. It’s very much about getting them into our services and get to know them before we can even start thinking about case management and getting them off the street.”

New Roads also helps youth starting to struggle with mental health and substance abuse issues, and some kids aging out of the assistance provided by the juvenile justice system. She says the 18-to-21 group is the largest group they see.

She says it’s tricky to track how many kids they are able to help, but they see 50 to 100 youth a day. “Country Fair time we get more folks that are transient and very short term,” she says.

Schwarz says the kids that come in are often escaping abusive home situations, aging out of foster care or are from chronically homeless families. She says the number of kids from chronically homeless families has begun to increase over the last six months. With Lane County’s high unemployment and poverty rates, local agencies are seeing a lot of need. 

Local restaurateur Joshua Keim kicked off a controversy when he tried to help homeless youth downtown by letting some of them sleep at his Maitreya Buddha Spiritual Center and School of Sharing last month. For every person who is annoyed by the homeless kids who hang out downtown, there’s another that wants to help them. For information on where to go if you are homeless, or on how to donate to one of these groups:

Looking Glass’ New Roads Program
941 W. 7th Ave. (between Blair and Van Buren) or call 689-3111

Brattain House
1030 G. St., Springfield, 744-2581

Hosea Youth Services
834 Monroe St., 344-5583