On paper, 130 homeless students have been identified in Del Norte County.

However, Patti Rommel, foster youth services coordinator for the Del Norte County Office of Education, says she believes the actual number of homeless youth in the county could be as much as three times higher. But it’s a matter of “getting the message out into the community” to come up with a more accurate figure, she said.

“It’s not like we want to go ‘poor you’ or put a label on somebody,” Rommel said. “We can offer additional services that help give them that educational experience that’s as typical as possible, but we can’t do that if they’re not identified.”

It’s a dilemma that those who work with homeless youth across the region, in Curry as well as Humboldt and Trinity counties, regularly face.

Parents fear their children will be taken from them if officials find out they’re homeless, said Roger Golec, director of homeless and youth services for the Humboldt County Office of Education. For others, older students especially, it may be the stigma associated with being homeless. Or, because the criteria to define homeless students is different than the criteria used to identify homeless adults, students and families may not consider themselves homeless, Golec said.

“What I have seen in working to address the school district frontline staff and administrators is getting beyond the popular notion or the stereotypic notion of who is homeless and why they’re homeless,” he said. “The better job we’ve been able to do consistently in training folks then they come to recognize (homeless) students ‘cause they know they’re living in these precarious situations and also getting rid of the judgmental stuff — they didn’t have to be living with that family, that kid didn’t have to run away, he chose to run away — none of that should be factored in.”

Rommel cited the Point in Time study conducted by the Del Norte County Department of Health and Human Services in January, stating that it indicated that the county’s homeless rate was about 11 percent. About 3.2 percent of Del Norte County’s population is school-aged youth, Rommel said. The statistics of the number of homeless students should be closer to that 11 percent, she said.

Local numbers

Rommel also noted that the Point in Time study identifies homelessness based on the criteria established by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. These criteria are narrower than the definition of homelessness under the McKinney-Vento Act, which is what the Del Norte County Office of Education, and other educational institutions use, for identifying homeless students, she said.

HUD identified a person or family as homeless if they lacked a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence. This applies if they are sheltering in a place not designed or ordinarily used as a regular sleeping accommodation such as a car, park or abandoned building. This also applies if they are sleeping in a publicly or privately operated shelter including a hotel or motel paid for by government or charitable organizations.

Under the McKinney-Vento Act, homeless children and youth are those that lack a fixed regular and adequate nighttime residence. This includes students sharing a house belonging to someone other than their parents or legal guardian; those who are living in cars; those who are living in a public or private place not designed for or used as a regular sleeping accommodation for human beings; and those who are migratory, according to the act.

Rommel also cited a purge of the Del Norte County Office of Education’s system about four years ago by a staff member who followed the HUD criteria for homelessness rather than the McKinney-Vento definition. This purge eliminated about two-thirds of homeless students from the system, she told the Triplicate.

“We had about 425 as I recollect about four years ago,” Rommel said, citing the number of students who, four years ago, the County Office of Education identified as homeless. “I know it was over 400 students.”

Humboldt and Trinity counties

In Humboldt County, which has about 18,000 pre-K through 12th-grade students spread out across 32 school districts, 1,571 students were identified as homeless during the 2017-18 school year. According to statistics from the Humboldt County Office of Education, the number of homeless K12 students has increased from 1,027 during the 2013-14 school year to 1,493 during the 2017-18 school year.

Golec said when he began working for the Humboldt County Office of Education about 10 years ago, the number of homeless students identified were between 700 and 800. Since then, he said, staff at local school districts have become more educated on the McKinney-Vento criteria for homelessness and have become better at identifying students who may fall under that definition.

Golec also attributes the increase in the number of identified homeless students in Humboldt County to a tight supply of affordable housing in Arcata, Eureka and Fortuna.

Statewide, about 290,000 students in California qualified as homeless under the McKinney-Vento Act last year, Golec said. According to Golec, other than money specifically set aside for low-income and foster students, California doesn’t set aside funding to address homeless students’ needs.

“Districts struggle,” he said. “They struggle because their main support system is going to be personnel. It’s going to be someone dedicated to working with students and families. Personnel costs are expensive and so districts a lot of the time don’t have the resources.”

The Humboldt County Office of Education obtained a three-year $225,000 federal grant to pay for technical assistance and ongoing training of McKinney-Vento liaisons at the district level, Golec said. Eureka City Schools, Northern Humboldt High School District and two other Humboldt County districts also received federal dollars for services for homeless students, Golec said. He estimated that those districts had a total of about 500 homeless students.

In Trinity County, though the number of students is smaller at about 1,600, with about 177 homeless students it has one of the highest percentages in California, according to Alan Sanger, McKinney-Vento coordinator for the Trinity County Office of Education. Sanger estimated that Trinity County has had an average of about 180 homeless students for the last six to seven years.

“It peaked at a time when the economy was really poor,” Sanger said. “Back in 2012 we had 220 identified and then now it’s 177.”

Sanger said Trinity County offers similar services to its homeless students as the Del Norte County Office of Education, which provides clothing and transportation to school for its homeless youth. There are also a lot of services that are offered to students on a case by case basis, Sanger said.

If they’re not living with their parents, these services may include helping them obtain Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits to enable them to help with the food bill as well as MediCal for health care, Sanger said.

Oregon statistics

North of the state line though, the education system is a bit different — there are no county offices of education in Oregon — districts still use McKinney-Vento Act definition to identify its homeless students.

Statewide, 21,756 homeless students were identified during the 2017-18 school year, according to the Oregon Department of Education. That number decreased slightly from the 2016-17 figure of 22,541, according to the department, but was up from the 2012-13 statistic of 18,165.

As for the counties immediately adjacent to Del Norte, the number of homeless students in Curry County during was 129 during the 2017-18 school year, according to the Oregon Department of Education. In Josephine County, 969 K12 students were identified as homeless, according to the Oregon Department of Education.

The districts with the highest number of homeless students included Grants Pass School District 7, which had 500 homeless students in 2017-18, according to the Oregon Department of Education. Three Rivers School District, with 477 homeless students, were also among the districts with the highest number of homeless students in the state, according to the Department of Education.

In Curry County, Port Orford-Langlois School District was among the districts with the highest percentage of homeless students with 19.82 percent of its enrollment identified as homeless, according to the Oregon Department of Education.

Local higher education

Golec pointed out that both College of the Redwoods and Humboldt State University have recognized that a significant portion of their student populations struggle with homelessness.

Realizing that more than 100 of students across its district, which includes both Humboldt and Del Norte counties, have identified as being either homeless or facing housing insecurity, College of the Redwoods has established the Redwoods Room & Board Scholarship Fund. This program provides students with housing and meals as well as an interim safety net system to build rental and job history, according to Marty Coelho, CR’s director of college advancement.

As of Dec. 18, CR has raised $25,200 of the $48,000 needed for its Redwoods Room & Board Scholarship program.

“We just looked at our recent data for students who applied for scholarships and 11 percent of them indicated they were either homeless or housing insecure,” Coelho said via email on Dec. 18. “We don’t as of yet have numbers broken out by county.”

Coelho said HSU, CR and the Humboldt County Office of Education are partnering to build a plan to address student homelessness in both Humboldt and Del Norte counties.

According to statistics from a California State University system-wide survey led by Humboldt State University social work professor, Jennifer Maguire, about 10.9 percent of CSU students reported experiencing homelessness at least once in the last 12 months.

At HSU, about 19 percent of its students reported being housing insecure at least once in the last 12 months, “nearly three-quarters higher than the CSU as a whole,” according to the survey.

To combat housing insecurity among its students, Humboldt State hired social work graduate student Chant’e Catt as its new housing liaison. According to an article published by Humboldt State Now, Catt’s job is to help students learn about housing rights and how to be a good tenant.

Services available in Del Norte County

Rommel and her colleague, homeless and foster youth liaison Connie Battles-Bern, are working on encouraging those who may know a family they suspect to be homeless to take advantage of the services the County Office of Education has to offer.

These include providing clothing, shoes and sleeping bags. Transportation to school as well as job skills for older students.

“Again, we emphasize this is not something that we’re trying to label or identify kids with,” Rommel said. “We’re trying to give them additional support to help them have the most typical educational experience we can.”

Reach Jessica Cejnar at jcejnar@triplicate.com .