Jo Zimmer, MPAE, owner of Beyond-the-Box Strategies, LLC, brings more than 20 years’ experience in safety net programs, most recently to the 28-county Rural Oregon Continuum of Care (ROCC), in her contracted role as Consultant/Coordinator for the Oregon team’s State Partnerships on Student Homelessness Project. By helping agencies and entities cooperatively address issues of housing, homelessness, and poverty in rural Oregon, she hopes to assist communities in doing “better” with less and reframe traditional thinking about funding and service delivery.
Additionally, Jo is a member of the Code Amendments Task Force in Albany, Oregon; Commissioner/Chair of the Community Development Commission in Albany, Oregon; a member of the Oregon DHS Homeless Youth Advisory Board; former Chair of the Homeless Engagement and Resource Team (HEART) in Albany, Oregon; Advisory Board Member of Jackson Street Youth Services in Corvallis, Oregon; and a participant in the OHCS Supported Housing Strategic Workgroup.
What does youth homelessness in Oregon look like?
Close to four percent of Oregon’s public school students are homeless, and nearly 17% of those students are unaccompanied by parents or guardians.
Oregon’s 2018-2019 school year numbers of youth experiencing homelessness reflect stark realities :
- 3.88% (22,215) of the total number of enrolled students K-12 were identified as experiencing homelessness; 45% of these students are located in mostly rural counties
- 17% (3,700) of all students experiencing homelessness were unaccompanied (not in physical custody of parent or legal guardian)
- 7% of unaccompanied youth experiencing homelessness were sheltered when they were first identified as homeless (43% of which were rural)
- 5% of unaccompanied youth experiencing homelessness were unsheltered when they were first identified as homeless (50% of which were rural)
- 88% of unaccompanied youth experiencing homelessness were staying with others when they were first identified as homeless (44% of which were rural)
- Fewer than 1% of unaccompanied youth experiencing homelessness were living in motels/hotels when they were first identified as homeless (38% of which were rural)
While Oregon school districts are consistently successful at connecting unaccompanied youth with educational services and supports, the biggest barrier to high school graduation and overall school success for these young people is often the lack of a decent, regular, and safe place to sleep.
Tell us a little bit about Oregon’s host homes: how do host homes in Oregon help promote high school graduation for students experiencing homelessness?
The Scaling Up Second Home Initiative (SUSHI) grant was written to improve statewide information-sharing about alternative housing options for unaccompanied youth that support their efforts to complete high school. Specifically, we sought to encourage community-supported safe and stable housing options that keep youth connected to “home.”
We believe and have found that students who are safely supported in “home-like” environments fare far better in school: one local host home program boasts a 95% graduation rate of its participating students compared to Oregon’s statewide average of 53%.
Part of our initiative’s information-gathering involved building an inventory of host home-like opportunities and noting potential future host homes and/or future programming options. While the Second Home program facilitated through Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon is the specific host home model shared during our community presentations, the state does not have an “official” host home model at this time. Rather, a number of optional models (including those espoused by Point Source Youth; Mason County, Washington; and Homeless Youth Connection, Arizona , among others), and programming comparisons, have been offered as available options.
To participate in the Second Home program, families or individuals can apply to be hosts; applications are followed by a background check and home visit. During the home visits, potential hosts are challenged to think critically about what hosting a student might look like and are encouraged to consider what their own healthy boundaries might look like, including describing their preferences for sharing a home. Once a host has applied and is approved, the wait begins for referral of a specific youth from a McKinney-Vento liaison. Similarly, prospective host home youth complete applications and participate in interviews in which youth reflect on their needs for housing. They are then offered the opportunity to meet with potential hosts and begin the preliminary conversation about living together. If all goes well, both student and host are offered a reflective 24-hour period after which host can offer space to a student and a student can accept or decline the offer. Once a student and host are connected and a living agreement has been mediated through a local dispute resolution center, there is follow up and engagement relating to the student’s professional development and subsequent housing needs as they evolve and grow through educational success.
We believe and have found that students who are safely supported in “home-like” environments fare far better in school: one local host home program boasts a 95% graduation rate of its participating students compared to Oregon’s statewide average of 53%. For this purpose, “home-like” references degrees of student integration within respective host home environments. Those degrees of integration are part of agreements negotiated prior to actual housing through conversation between local dispute resolution centers, the potential host home, and respective youth.
Why is it important to enhance promotion of the host homes in Oregon? Do you have additional goals beyond promotion of host homes?
In spite of Oregon’s large number of unaccompanied homeless youth, the funding dedicated for use toward the typical runaway and homeless youth (RHY) population remains consistently low, at approximately $3.575 million per biennium. This population was also largely overlooked in the recently released statewide housing plan and statewide shelter study (foster youth were specifically referenced as a population service gap, but not the larger RHY population).
Additionally, Oregon’s approach to issues of housing and homelessness is in considerable flux, ranging from statewide policy-making, data review, and programming redesign to localized, grassroots, and oftentimes regional conversations and collaboration. While the state’s legislature has responded to the expanding housing/unhousing crises with unprecedented amounts of funding and directives for new affordable housing, efforts to address specific issues for homeless and/or unaccompanied youth ages 12 to 24 remain largely off the radar.
The Oregon State Partnerships Project’s primary goal has been to increase the high school graduation rate of students experiencing homelessness. The Oregon Department of Education and the SUSHI team has worked to address this goal by expanding awareness of and opportunities for building and supporting host homes and supportive programs in a minimum of six statewide locations; creating a more uniform data collection platform for McKinney-Vento liaisons; and increasing local community collaborations between school districts, dispute resolution centers, housing providers, and others.
What are your goals for your regional host home forums? How did you decide which communities to visit?
The host home forums were scheduled concurrent with the fall regional McKinney-Vento liaison and foster care points of contact trainings; many attendees stayed for all three presentations. The primary goals for these forums were to increase awareness of the host home concept generally; to begin noting inventory of any existing programming, whether informal or formal; and to better understand continuing homeless student service gaps. As identified in the state’s previously referenced Shelter Study (see footnote 5), currently only 436 beds statewide are held solely for unaccompanied youth; school year 2018-2019 numbers counted 3,704 unaccompanied homeless students.
The primary goals for these forums were to increase awareness of the host home concept generally; to begin noting inventory of any existing programming, whether informal or formal; and to better understand continuing homeless student service gaps.
Choosing the most appropriate – and initial – communities to visit came down to two primary goals: connecting host home information to areas potentially interested in expanding the Second Home model specifically, and ensuring the greatest information-sharing across very rural locations (often with shared populations and even shared resources) with general host home models and practices. By including state agencies (OHCS and Department of Human Services) we sought to carry these messages beyond the initial scope of our plan. Ultimately, a strong interest of this team has been to draft recommended processes to provide information and coordination of resources on a regular basis, and to be ready to assist with programming development at whatever level communities might support.
In addition to the statewide forums conducted through December 2019, the SUSHI team looks forward to scheduling additional community conversations as requested. We presented at the state homeless coalition conference in September 2019 and at the state migrant conference in November 2019. This month (January 2020), SchoolHouse Connection’s Patricia Julianelle will serve as a presenter for the Oregon Association on Comprehensive Education Liaison Symposium in Seaside, Oregon. Ms. Julianelle will also serve as keynote speaker during a final SUSHI convening event planned in the Willamette Valley immediately preceding the symposium. It is during this final event where lessons learned from our grant efforts and recommendations for next steps will be shared and discussed.
What were some of your key takeaways after the forums, and is there anything you will do differently in the future?
Key takeaways from the forums: host homes are already a known and popular strategy in many if not most Oregon communities, though they are usually organically developed and receive limited formal support. That said, coordinated training and support (i.e. having a statewide lead and the structure provided by regional teams) are desperately needed and would be welcomed. We would like to schedule follow-up visits to some communities to address secondary interests (i.e. supporting McKinney-Vento liaisons and RHY providers in sharing concerns and successful strategies with school and community leaders). Additionally, we have determined that the range of potential invitees should extend beyond McKinney-Vento liaisons; for example, we learned that one community’s fire department chief already provides shelter for unaccompanied youth and that 211 information regarding homeless services would serve as a great informational resource during telephonic intake conversations with families and youth. Finally, we confirm that local emergency youth shelters and supportive programming (including transitional living programs), where located, must continue to be part of any conversation adding host home concepts into the continuum of relevant services.
As for what we could do differently, we’d like to deepen our prepared presentations and provide opportunities for more organic sharing amongst attendees. We also need to note locations statewide of operating host home programs (where applicable) and collect more specific information about currently connected partners and where partnering gaps exist. We can also start to consider the possibility of the next iteration of this grant, including the building out of our network/learning cohort that was originally intended to develop the initial bones of a statewide plan.