We can stop the tragedy of homeless school children

December 20, 2017By Juan Carlos Ordóñez

[This commentary was first published in the Portland Tribune.]

It's no secret kids need a safe, stable and nurturing environment to thrive. Research shows this is the foundation children need to achieve their full potential.

That is why homelessness not only inflicts tremendous suffering on children, but also stifles their ability to achieve their hopes and dreams. Compared to other kids, homeless children are more likely to go hungry, get sick and suffer from anxiety and depression. They are at greater risk to suffer from or witness violence. They are more likely to miss school days and drop out.

Sadly, homelessness among Oregon children attending K-12 schools stands at an all-time high, state officials recently reported. This tragedy continues to unfold, even though Oregon has the means to confront the problem.

For some time now, school districts have been tracking the number of students who "lack a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence." This includes, for example, children whose families live in an emergency shelter or a tent, or that are doubled up in another family's home.

In the 2016-17 school year, Oregon school districts counted over 22,500 children who were homeless — a record high.

That translates to about one in every 25 students having no home to call their own. To put that in perspective, the typical Oregon classroom has 25 students.

What is driving the increase? It's not the economy. Student homelessness has been rising as the economy has gathered steam and the jobless rate has dropped to record lows.

Instead, the problem stems from the lack of affordable housing. For many families, rent is outpacing wages.

Some of the highest rates of homelessness among schoolchildren can be found in rural school districts. That's not too surprising. Oregon's rural counties have some of the least affordable housing among all rural counties nationally.

One bit of good news in this woeful state of affairs is that Oregon school districts have stepped up to confront the challenge. According to the Institute for Children, Poverty & Homelessness, Oregon does the best job of any state in identifying homeless students and a better job than most in providing them the support they need.

Yet preventing this tragedy from occurring in the first place would be far better for the children, their families and our state. And here's the thing: Oregon has the means to tackle the problem.

Every budget period, Oregon spends more than $1 billion subsidizing homeowners via the ill-conceived mortgage-interest deduction, Oregon's biggest housing program. Less than one-third of taxpayers benefit from the deduction, and the bulk of the money goes to those at the top of the income ladder, those who do not need help from the state to put a roof over their heads.

A common-sense reform of the mortgage-interest deduction would yield significant resources for Oregon to address the crisis of housing affordability. The funds would go a long way in ensuring all Oregon schoolchildren have a place to call home.

Oregon lawmakers need to reform the mortgage-interest deduction and redirect the funds to those most in need. The well-being of our children — and Oregon's future — demands action.

Juan Carlos Ordóñez is communications director for the Oregon Center for Public Policy.