Warrenton High School

The housing crunch and other factors have caused some students to experience homelessness.

WARRENTON — While the coronavirus pandemic brought many obstacles for students and school administrators, the Warrenton-Hammond School District also struggled with a familiar challenge: students facing homelessness.

In the Oregon Department of Education’s annual report card for the 2020-2021 school year, Warrenton had the sixth-highest share of students experiencing homelessness in the state at just over 15%.

“It’s definitely the metric that our district thinks a lot about. It is the one that jumps out in the county,” Warrenton Superintendent Tom Rogozinski said.

The school district accounted for 150 of the 267 students in Clatsop County designated as homeless last school year.

Although the overall number of students facing homelessness has steadily declined since 2016 — and took the biggest drop this past year — Warrenton’s ranking among the top has been a constant.

The school metric captures the housing instability that many families in the region face.

Under the Department of Education’s criteria, students designated as experiencing homelessness can be in a number of different living situations. The state defines a student experiencing homelessness as lacking “a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence.” This could mean the student is unsheltered or staying in an emergency shelter, but also covers transitional housing, shared housing due to the loss of housing or economic hardship and living in a motel, tent or trailer.

“It’s generally not those who are living under the bridge … as much as they are very itinerant, they are very unstable and they go through a number of addresses within a given school year,” Rogozinski said.

State data from previous school years shows the number of students designated as unsheltered usually sits around 2% to 3% of the total enrolled population. The number in emergency shelters is typically under five students, and is not recorded to protect confidentiality.

Rod Heyen, the principal of Warrenton High School, and Josh Jannusch, the principal of Warrenton Middle School, said many of the students who fit the homelessness designation live in mobile home parks and shared — often multigenerational — housing.

Warrenton is the fastest-growing city in the county and often the most attractive for younger families. But the county’s lack of affordable housing has created competition, particularly for low-and-medium income households.

Viviana Matthews, the executive director of Clatsop Community Action, said she was not surprised by the percentage of students facing homelessness in Warrenton.

“One of the biggest barriers that we have is the lack of housing. The inventory, especially in Warrenton, is nonexistent, either for purchasing or renting,” she said.

While the social services organization cannot work directly with students if they are minors, school districts often refer families to Clatsop Community Action if they need assistance with housing.

Another barrier for struggling families, Jannusch said, is that many social services are based in Astoria and Seaside.

Mary Suever, a middle school counselor, serves as the school district’s liaison to identify and provide services to students experiencing homelessness to help ensure they have equal access to education.

“One of her biggest (responsibilities) is identification and that’s not always as easy as one would think,” Rogozinski said. “It doesn’t always just show up on the registration form. There’s conversation, and getting to know kids and families, and follow-ups.

“But I think a lot of it is the continuous and continuous communication to ensure that if families have any social service-type of needs, whether that’s food, clothing, around the holidays — gifts and meals — Mary is the conduit to which that information gets to us.”

Because students face so many different situations, Rogozinski said, it is crucial for Suever to be assertive with outreach to families. Particularly with remote learning during the pandemic, he said, it was evident that many students relied on the resources that schools provide.

“We’re the lifeline in some cases,” he said.

Heyen and Jannusch emphasized that the community has stepped up to help temper the struggles many families face.

One of the largest contributors is the Assistance League of the Columbia Pacific, a nonprofit that seeks to strengthen communities through philanthropic programs. Each school in the county has a representative at the organization.

Kathleen Macdonald, who works with Warrenton High School through the Assistance League, said one of their main focuses is providing clothes for students, and in turn, helping reduce the social pressure that comes with having less wardrobe options.

Before the pandemic, they would take a busload of students to retail stores and supply a volunteer for each one to pick out essential clothing.

“We want to (provide) the one-on-one experience, which is about increasing their self-esteem,” Macdonald said. “If I have holey shoes or I don’t have clothes that fit or I don’t have clothes at all, I may have some self-esteem issues that could be solved with some new clothes. It’s a pretty amazing thing.”

Rogozinski said Consejo Hispano, the Sunset Empire Transportation District and the local food bank also support students.

“What I am constantly impressed by and amazed by is how there is no doubt it is an increased challenge for many students — it is absolutely impressive and amazing how well many of them learn and thrive, even in those environments that make it difficult to do so,” he said.

While homelessness casts a shadow on the school district, educators know that solutions will likely require a greater state and federal focus.

“I don’t think any of us in the public sector — service sector — is feeling like we got it figured out, or we wouldn’t have 15.8% of our kids designated as homeless,” Rogozinski said. “I think we are doing a good job of not letting it be defining for the kids, but I think we can’t take our eye off that.

“The intentionality around that is huge and it’s clear from the numbers … it’s a true challenge for us.”