Number of homeless Oak Harbor students rises

The number of homeless students in the Oak Harbor School District increased during the 2016-17 school year, with the number of unsheltered students more than doubling, according to a recently released report by the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction.

The count includes students who “lack a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence,” which includes sharing housing due to loss of housing, living in hotels or living in transitional shelters.

During the 2016-17 school year, there were a total of 285 students counted as experiencing homelessness in the district, an increase of 56 students from the previous year.

The number of unsheltered students went from 16 to 33, according to state data. Vivian Rogers Decker is the district’s homeless liaison, and she said this problem seems to be escalating nationwide. The report by OSPI showed the numbers across Washington state are the highest in the state’s history.

“We don’t have enough affordable housing and we have jobs that don’t support the cost of housing in our community,” she said. “And that’s everywhere.”

She said that districts have also become better trained at identifying and counting students who are experiencing homelessness than they used to be, which can contribute to higher numbers. The federal McKinney-Vento Act requires school districts to identify and provide support to these students.

Rogers Decker heads Oak Harbor’s Families in Transition program.

Through the program, these students receive free breakfast and lunch, transportation to and from school, school supplies and waived fees.

Rogers Decker will provide such support as calling clinics and doctor’s offices to connect students with care, helping families enroll in insurance and traveling to campgrounds to provide information to families.

“You just do what it takes,” she said.

Most of the students experiencing homelessness in Oak Harbor were living with other families due to a loss of housing, according to the report. Kindergartners represented the largest age group of the total with 29.

The second highest group was 11th graders; Rogers Decker said high schoolers tend to be a focus because there are generally more unaccompanied youth at that age.

The report found 75 unaccompanied youth in the district.

Students struggling with housing at Oak Harbor High School can opt into a mentor program, she said. This program, administered by student support specialist Nadine Cushway, pairs students with staff based on shared interests and the needs of the student.

“The mentor is really there to kind of check in and support them,” Rogers Decker said. “Maybe they need tutoring or services … maybe the student’s just struggling with having to move a lot or couch surf and they want somebody to talk to.”

Rogers Decker will also connect students to early learning centers for developmentally disabled children such as Head Start and Hand-in-Hand.

The report found 60 of the district’s homeless students had a developmental disability.

Rogers Decker said the problems is on the rise in the community.

Low-income housing units are converting to market-rate housing, resulting in many people not being able to continue to pay their rent, she said.

A recent analysis done by county officials found a significant deficit in the available housing stock for low-income residents in Island County.

“It’s a reality check to see what people make in their income and what they need to make in their income in order to afford housing here,” she said.

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