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Volunteers take in housing insecure students near graduation. The program is expanding to Western Washington County

When David Pero talks about youth housing insecurity, he describes it as an invisible problem.

"People may be unaware of it, but there are homeless, unaccompanied youth even out here in western Washington County," he said.

If a student is experiencing homelessness, their priority isn't their education, it's survival, said Pero, who helps students and families experiencing housing insecurity access resources as the McKinney-Vento liaison at the Forest Grove School District.

But a program Pero said has been successful at helping homeless students graduate in certain districts is expanding to western Washington County.

Second Home is a program run by the Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon that finds volunteers to take in unaccompanied or housing insecure youth until they graduate high school. The program has been in Beaverton for 10 years and it recently received grant funding to start working with the Forest Grove, Gaston, Banks, Sherwood and Tigard-Tualatin school districts.

Second Home partners with school districts because they're already working to help students obtain housing security. Teachers and counselors who become aware of a student's housing situation notify Pero so he can reach out and connect them with resources.

Second Home isn't considered foster care, said Amy Brownell, who's running the program in western Washington County. Only students who are at least 16 years old, or 15 and parenting, qualify. Those students can legally sign rental agreements, according to Oregon law.

Jake Sunderland, spokesperson for the Oregon Department of Human Services, said the agency has been aware of the program for years. While it's not part of any foster care program, Sunderland said, it provides a needed service.

Second Home connects students and home providers interested in hosting them, and if they agree that it will be a good fit, a mediation process begins.

"They meet with the mediators, who walk them through a rental agreement process and make sure they talk about compatibility and create expectations around what living together is going to look like," Brownell said.

Home providers go through background checks and home visits before being connected with students, she said. They're also not given any compensation from Second Home or the state, like they would in the foster care system — it's all-volunteer.

After a student has moved in, Second Home checks in with the student and home providers after one month. After two months, they all meet with a mediator again to see if the agreement is being upheld. After that, Brownell said Second Home checks in periodically and is always available to address concerns.

Brownell is currently working to secure relationships with school districts, but she said she can't wait to start connecting students with home providers.

"I have come to really have a heart for young people and children who've experienced a lot of trauma in their lives and need extra support," Brownell said. "This program is a unique solution, or at least partial solution, to an issue that is invisible."

She said it's difficult to find people who are willing to take in a student experiencing homelessness, and it's even more difficult to find people who are able to provide a home in a trauma-sensitive way.

Most of Second Home's providers are "white empty-nesters," Brownell said. But she's trying to reach out through nonprofits and community groups to potential home providers with more diverse backgrounds because the students have diverse cultural backgrounds.

A common reason why high schoolers become homeless is that their parents kick them out of the house because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. Some studies show the proportion of LGBTQ homeless youth is as much as 40%, according to the Oregon Youth Development Council.

"Every situation is different," Pero said. "Evictions on a parent's record. If a family has to move out because of domestic violence. We see too many of those."

As of the end of September, there were 32 students enrolled in the Forest Grove School District who didn't have a reliable place to sleep at night, according to Pero.

Pero said the number of students without secure housing fluctuates throughout the year, and it's been up to more than 100 recently. An Oregon Department of Education count during the 2017-18 school year showed there were more than 2,600 homeless students in Washington County — the second-most in the state behind Multnomah County. Washington County is the second-most populous county in the state.

The partnership between the Forest Grove School District and Second Home is in its early stages. The district and Second Home signed a memorandum of understanding establishing the partnership at the beginning of the school year.

Pero said he's hopeful about the program, adding the district wants to do anything it can to help students struggling with housing insecurity graduate.

"If we can keep a student in school and graduating, it's very important for the district," Pero said.

People interested in volunteering can learn more here.

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