Chris Hawkins has a tough, yet very important job. She is the Homeless Education Outreach Coordinator for the Corvallis School District. Assisting with more than just homelessness, her small staff is there to help kids navigate through crisis, whether they are suicidal, have difficult home situations, or are living in poverty. Students in crisis can come from any age group or income level, although students living with homelessness and poverty are disproportionately affected by stress.
Hawkins, a veteran in education, began working at CSD about 21 years ago. Before that, she worked for a decade teaching fourth grade with the Lebanon School District. She has worked for more than five years as homeless coordinator for CSD, and as a result of three decades working in education, Hawkins has a teacher’s perspective on the challenges that students dealing with crisis and homelessness face on a daily basis.
There are two experienced family outreach advocates that work closely with Hawkins. Thanks to a grant and partnership with the Linn Benton Lincoln Education Service District, two other specialists have joined the team to provide additional services at Mountain View and Wilson Elementary.
What They Do
A large part of the responsibility for Hawkins and her personnel at CSD is to make sure kids have resources, most importantly food. Often, CSD staff will send kids backpacks of food for the weekend. Local non-profits, like the Assistance League, put together packages of clothing, hygiene supplies, and laundry cards. These contributions seem modest, but the stability that normal necessities provide could make the difference for a child with a difficult home life.
Imagine trying to do homework in a tent by the river. Hawkins recalls a student whose school issued iPad was never charged. She later found that it was because the student lived in a space with no electricity. Teachers confront these types of social hurdles daily. Hawkins and her crew are there to help bridge some of those gaps so that teachers can focus on their already extensive responsibilities. Making sure students have the ability to keep up with schoolwork – despite the challenges they face at home – is a primary objective of Hawkins’ work, and it is a seemingly endless task.
Luckily, teachers are overwhelmingly supportive and aware of the complex issues and stresses that students face each day. There is a fairly complex network of family outreach and community health advocates housed within CSD to ensure that all students have access to resources and stability in their education experience.
But outside the classroom, it can be harder for teachers to intervene in troubled home environments. Teachers at CSD are required to report any signs of neglect or abuse. DHS, in turn, coordinates regularly with school officials to ensure that all children have a safe home environment, and investigate any instances of domestic abuse.
Hawkins also works alongside the Title I Coordinator, Amy Lesan. Together, their unit at CSD serves 13 schools with 6,500 students, four of which are supported by the Title I Program, a federal program that supports students in navigating through poverty. The goal of the Title I program is to provide funding for additional instruction and activities, in the hopes that it will improve state academic standards. Parent participation is also a stipulation of the program. Although the Federal Assistance programs help, student poverty and homelessness is growing.
The Invisible, Student Homelessness
Homelessness is a controversial and polarizing topic no matter where you reside. Children are often overlooked in the discussion of homelessness; they are an invisible demographic because they don’t stand on street corners and panhandle on sidewalks. Instead, they sleep on couches, motels, tents, or in the backseats of cars, all the while attending school. But these children have no choice in being homeless, they are born into it.
In the 2016-17 school year, there were 323 homeless K-12 students in the Corvallis School District, or 4.8 percent of the district population. That number has gone up and down over the years, but getting an accurate count on homelessness has always been a difficult task.
Statewide, the homeless student count has steadily risen for the past four years. According to the Oregon Department of Education, more than 22,000 students or 3.9 percent of the K-12 population, “lack a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence.”
One misconception is that homeless children come from broken homes. In many cases, homeless children have both parents working jobs, but just don’t pull in the income to afford adequate and permanent housing. The lack of affordable housing in Corvallis has compounded the problem in recent years.
There is no panacea to fix the issues of students living in crisis and poverty in Corvallis. Hawkins and her team are on the ground every day, tirelessly working with teachers and school specialists to mitigate the crises children are constantly dealing with, but the numbers show that the problems are not going away any time soon. When Hawkins isn’t working directly at schools in the district, she is often speaking publicly, trying to raise awareness on the issues of student homelessness.
By Chris McDowell