Taking in homeless youth a tough sell in western Washington County
It's safe to say parenting teenagers isn't easy.
So what would make someone want to take a teenage stranger experiencing homelessness into their home?
For Beaverton resident Monica Linder, she had rented out a spare room in her home previously, but when the person moved out, Linder thought, "I don't need that money, I want to use this room in a better way," she said.
Linder is a home provider with Second Home, a program, created by the Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon, that matches host homes with homeless and unaccompanied high schoolers in Washington County, Clackamas County, East Multnomah County and Lincoln County.
Advocates say the program, which seeks to provide youth with stable housing and support to allow them to complete high school, is a key service in a region with high rates of youth homelessness.
Second Home has been operating in Beaverton for more than 10 years. In fall 2019, the program received grant funding to expand and start working in the Forest Grove, Gaston, Banks, Sherwood and Tigard-Tualatin school districts.
But coordinators with the program say they've been struggling to recruit host families in the more rural areas of western Washington County at a crucial time.
How large is the problem?
School districts had a hard time staying in touch with homeless students as the pandemic required students to do remote learning, said David Pero, the McKinney-Vento liaison at the Forest Grove School District. In accordance with federal law, every school district must designate a liaison to provide homeless students access to education.
"If you don't have a stable place to live, at least coming into school every day, you have that stability," Pero said. "You can physically go to the counseling office. People see you."
Pero says school districts' recent counts of homeless students underrepresent the actual numbers of homeless youth.
At the end of the 2018-19 school year, the Forest Grove School District reported that it had 111 homeless students, according to the Oregon Department of Education.
Pero says the drop to 70 homeless students currently on record is mostly a result of school officials' difficulties staying in touch with students.
That number, 70, is up from earlier this school year when the district reported 64 homeless students, an increase which Pero credits to students returning to in-person learning recently.
Other school districts, such as the Hillsboro and Tigard-Tualatin school districts, have reported increases in homeless students, however.
For Pero, the availability of the Second Home program is important for allowing students who need more stability than they have in their current living situations — most often staying with friends, he said.
With school district officials out of touch with homeless students again during the summer, Celeste Goulding, Second Home coordinator in western Washington County, says it's even more critical to find host homes for students.
There's an urgency to find them because Goulding, who previously ran the winter homeless shelter program in Forest Grove and Cornelius, expects the number of homeless youth in the area to increase as Oregon's eviction moratorium expires at the end of June.
"There's just like a lot of reasons why a young person would want to live somewhere else for a year or two to get through high school that isn't necessarily because their family is utterly horrible in some way," Goulding said. "Maybe that helps preserve family relations because it gives the young person a place to go that's safe, so their parent or guardian can have some space to take care of their own finances or take care of their own problems."
The pandemic decreased people's willingness to participate everywhere, but in places surrounding Forest Grove and Banks, the difficulties were already there and have persisted, Goulding said.
Pero and Goulding aren't exactly sure why it has been notably more difficult to recruit host families in rural areas, they said.
Their best guess is that such areas are more impoverished and have more elderly populations, making welcoming a teenager who has likely experienced trauma into their homes a tough sell.
Goulding also points to less ubiquitous communication systems with schools, other agencies and service providers, which Second Home relies on to do messaging about their program.
The pandemic has limited her ability to provide information at places like local farmers markets, Goulding said. That has made it even harder to get the word out.
Being a home provider
A former caseworker with the Oregon Department of Human Services, Linder had long thought she might want to become a foster parent at some point.
"But life progressed" and it no longer made sense to become a foster parent, she said.
Later on, she heard about Second Home, and it sounded appealing.
The program is not part of the foster care system. Host families act as landlords with a lease agreement that doesn't cost the student any money but includes a set of expectations, one of which being that the student stays in school, and others are worked out between the student and the host family through a mediation process.
"I wanted to use our extra room to benefit someone who needed it," said Linder, a single mother of three boys, one of whom is a college student.
Linder's guest student started living with her in December 2019, and she has been there ever since.
She said her student is just like any other member of the family. Linder even calls her student her daughter.
But their close relationship wasn't immediate, Linder said.
"We definitely had that kind of transition period of getting comfortable," she said. "Getting comfortable with having an adult present to help you — just learning to trust each other, and that she could trust that what I said I meant, and giving her that freedom to open up."
Linder started to see that comfort and familiarity develop through little things, like taking walks with the dog or doing work at the kitchen table.
Letting her student know she was there to talk anytime, and that she could process her previous experiences with her biological family and being homeless at her own pace, was important, Linder said.
Ultimately, it became necessary for Linder to let her student know that even if the student broke a previously set agreement, she could still live there, Linder said.
While it's not a typical arrangement, her student stayed with Linder even after she graduated high school last year. The student now works and is attending Portland Community College.
While Linder and her guest were uniquely close, Jenny Pratt Hale, director of Second Home, says successful arrangements come in a wide range of forms.
"Home providers who are flexible and accepting, able to give grace and space, are the most successful," Pratt Hale said.
She added that Second Home is constantly looking for ways to increase the diversity in backgrounds of their home providers because students often feel more comfortable with families who are more similar to them.
People interested in becoming home providers with Second Home or donating to the program can visit emoregon.org/second-home.
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