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In what started out a year ago as a random conversation at a community networking meeting, several agencies and organizations have joined hands to try to come up with solutions to keep families with children in stable housing.

Those involved are studying all angles of the issue with plans to improve options and provide outlets for families that find themselves in dire straits. In particular, the Philomath School District has taken a lead role in trying to help their families with students find a more stable living situation.

“The focus really for us collectively is to work with families who are approaching a housing crisis, to help keep them in stable housing or get them into stable housing without a gap in their living arrangements,” Philomath Superintendent of Schools Melissa Goff said during the Jan. 17 school board meeting. “We’re looking at policy, procedure and practices and we have a nice cross-section of representatives for that.”

As a result, a committee, if you will, has been formed with participants including the school district, Philomath Community Services, Strengthening Rural Families, Benton County Health Department, Jackson Street Youth Shelter, Community Services Consortium, city of Philomath and others, such as Harriet Hughes, who helps those in need with local housing.

As an example of current conditions, Goff said that going into the Christmas break, the district had identified six families as homeless — a figure that would be based on the federal definition. She also said there were two families about to be displaced and “didn’t know whether they would be in housing when they returned from the holiday.”

After a meeting in December, Goff said the group “helped support our district team who actually kept a family in their housing over the break and walked them through the process of finding their next secure living situation.”

Those comments represent a hint of the type of success they hope to see more of in the future. But how did the effort pick up steam? It goes back to Van Hunsaker of Philomath Community Services and what he said at a Philomath Community Network gathering.

Hunsaker’s work with PCS has included keeping a record of clients and what services they utilize. Those types of statistics are needed for the organization to obtain grants and to make sure numbers aren’t inflated or duplicated.

Over the past three years, Hunsaker had noticed that in the spreedsheet, the number of families that could be classified as homeless had gone from three at the end of 2015 to nine at the end of 2016 to 15 by the end of 2017.

Hunsaker brought up those numbers among the community leaders and although the reaction was one of surprise among those sitting at the table, he recalled Goff saying that those situations can directly correlate to how well kids are doing in school.

“That started a conversation between the two of us — what can we do about it?” Hunsaker said.

The first conversation between them took place in early 2018, meeting off and on during the year trying to figure out answers to those tough questions. But they needed help, Hunsaker said, because neither were experts in the topic of homelessness.

“Finally, we decided, let’s get these different people together that we’ve been talking with and see what collectively we can come up with doing, with the focus particularly on families that have kids in school,” Hunsaker said.

As the McKinney-Vento liaison, Philomath Middle School counselor Mike Panico works with families defined as homeless to help them know their rights and how to provide that consistency in their child’s education.

“It’s interesting because the group is diverse,” Panico said. “As specific as what I bring, and then we have the city manager, and it feels like the group is looking to work as a community about what we can do to help our families that are either homeless or housing instable.”

The McKinney-Vento Education of Homeless Children and Youth Assistance Act is a federal law that ensures immediate enrollment and educational stability for homeless children and youth. It provides federal funding to states for the purpose of supporting district programs that serve homeless students.

“We try really hard to keep them in their school of origin, it’s called, so their school stays consistent,” Panico said. "Right now, we have kids that attend school in Philomath but are currently living elsewhere — Corvallis, Albany, and we’re arranging transportation for them to stay in school in Philomath, so we can keep that consistent for them because we know that school disruption only puts kids behind.”

Panico said he doesn’t really like to use the term “homelessness.”

“When you say homeless, people think it’s somebody without a home but that’s not the federal definition of homelessness for kids,” Panico said. “More often than not, what we see are families doubled up, families living together because of economic hardship and they have no other options. And so we have nine people in a three-bedroom house and it’s two families and that’s really unstable — but it’s housing.

"A lot of times with the high school age population, we have youth who are not living with their guardian,” he added. “They’re with a friend’s family or they’re couch-surfing and so they’re technically homeless according to the federal law … Those are the two main areas that we define as homeless or McKinney-Vento.”

Panico said occasionally, there will be students who are staying at the Jackson Street Youth Shelter or their families are staying with the Community Outreach Shelter. He also said, “rarely but occasionally,” there are families with children living in cars or campers or something similar.

Philomath City Manager Chris Workman is also part of the group.

“We don’t tend to have your stereotypical homeless person out on the street,” Workman said during the Jan. 14 city council meeting. “We have to recognize that there are a lot of people who are house-sharing, couch-surfing and maybe just one payment or a little bit away from being on the street. We’re looking to identifying both who those people are and identifying tools that we can put in place policy-wise that can help prevent them from going into that.”

Hunsaker said everyone participating has a particular strength and role that they can contribute to the effort.

“Just from the little bit that I’m learning, there are holes that maybe with some ingenuity could be, so to speak, plugged,” Hunsaker said. “After the first meeting, everybody talked to whoever else that could be involved, that kind of thing, and at the second meeting, there were probably 15 of us there. I feel hopeful that we can come up with some things to do that would really help people.”

Workman said one of the first initiatives that the group has looked at involves setting up some sort of fund.

“It would help with everything from an application fee for somebody that doesn’t have a lot of money to get into a place to a ‘fill’ that would help meet rent for the month,” he said. “These smaller fees and expenses that people don’t have a lot of resources for are a big deal. It can keep them out of housing or it can put them in a situation where they don’t have housing.”

Trying to figure out how to define the makeup of such a fund is just one piece of the puzzle. The group is also trying to come up with solutions as part of the bigger picture.

Panico said that the school district is also doing more on its own to offer help to families in those types of situations.

“All of the schools are starting to build clothing closets to help families that are struggling for a variety of reasons, even if it’s not necessarily with homelessness, but developing and expanding our clothing closets and working in partnership with people like Jackson Street who can get access to new clothes,” Panico said. “We’re also building a food pantry at Philomath Elementary School to help families and have easy access to food every day of the school week, whereas the food bank’s only open a couple of days a week.”

Panico said Friday morning that a meeting was planned for Feb. 7 with Benton County’s navigator. A basic definition of the navigator’s job would be a person who helps people that need services of some sort, including housing.

Panico, who has worked for the Philomath School District for the past decade, has not seen this type of collective effort in this area of concern.

“It’s the first time I’ve seen a multi-disciplinary team work on this sort of thing,” he said. “I know that housing in Philomath has been difficult for everybody for quite some time — that’s been real difficult for families. But I’ve not seen this level of cooperation among the agencies before.”

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