PORTLAND, Ore. (PORTLAND TRIBUNE) — Local youth homelessness in Central Oregon appears to be in a slight decline.

But because of pandemic-related limitations, it is difficult to know whether current data can be trusted and how great the need truly is.

Malea Horn is the homeless liaison for the Crook County School District and one of the primary points of contact when students who are experiencing homelessness seek educational services. Horn completes paperwork for those who meet the McKinney-Vento definition of homelessness and connects them with Family Access Network (FAN) advocates who help them access whatever resources are available to homeless youth and their families.

The school district has transitioned recently to a fully online student registration, Horn said, and that process includes a button people can click if they want to be contacted by the homeless liaison. She believes that has helped her better identify and help homeless students, and it might result in more accurate local data. That data suggest a slight decline in youth homelessness during the past three years.

However, COVID-19 restrictions are likely hurting the accuracy of the data.

“Definitely COVID changed a few things as far as being able to identify some of our homeless kiddos,” she said. “We have so many different options (in-person, online, home school). Not all the kids are coming into schools, so I can’t say that we are getting all of our numbers because they are harder to identify.”

Complicating matters further, the Point in Time Count, an annual effort to identify as many homeless individuals in the community as possible, doesn’t capture all potential homeless youth because it does not count those whose families are doubled up in the same home. Under the McKinney-Vento definition used by the schools, those students are considered homeless.

“If a family is doubled up with another family because they have no other choice, the family that is living there and not on the lease or mortgage is considered homeless,” Horn explained, “because they can be asked to leave at any time.”

In addition to the local help provided by the school district and FAN advocates, Redemption House Ministries focuses on helping the community’s homeless, although it doesn’t focus exclusively on youth.

The faith-based organization’s executive director, Cindy Burback, oversees a women and children’s shelter, a men’s shelter and Craig’s Compassionate Café, which provides a nourishing meal for those who find themselves in a tough situation.

Historically, the shelters have not been open full-time throughout the year. Burback wants to keep them open 24/7.

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“In order to do that,” she said, “I have to be able to hire staff and have staff available. And in order to have staff, I have to have finances. I am wanting commitment from some of our businesses in town.”

She added that $25 per month from these businesses collectively would provide the means to keep the shelters open all the time and pay for staffing.

“I am reaching out to all the Prineville business owners and churches to ask for support in sustaining the shelters here in town,” Burback said. “As we pull together and meet the needs of the homeless here in our community, it can create a positive outcome for everyone.”

So far this year, the Redemption House has provided 5,105 nightly stays for the men’s shelter, and 1,850 nightly stays for the women and children’s shelter. They have housed 26 men, 22 women, and five children who would otherwise have been in the streets. The cost to house one person per night is approximately $15, which includes meals, showers, and laundry facilities. For every $100 they receive, they can help six people off the streets for the night.

With current COVID restrictions, they can house 14 men and 15 women and children. Both shelters are full.

As state leaders look for solutions to youth homelessness, some say a rental assistance program of some kind is needed more immediately than new shelters or pop-up housing villages.

“Rental assistance is the key to ending homelessness for folks,” Mike Savara, assistant director of homeless services with the Oregon Housing and Community Services, said Friday, Oct. 29, during a statewide forum on youth homelessness. “They often need the support of housing first, in order to allow them to move forward.”

Savara said it is difficult for unhoused people to show up and fully participate in society without their basic housing needs met.

While Savara and other panelists at the forum suggested direct cash transfers cost less than staffing shelter beds, cash assistance programs haven’t been fully embraced by legislators or state agencies. Instead, voucher programs are available, which often prevent those in need from being able to access immediate housing options, like sharing a living space with roommates. What’s more, Oregon’s need for rental assistance outpaces available resources. In fact, the state estimates fewer than one in four low-income, at-risk households receive rental assistance, even though they qualify.

A state index on youth homelessness developed by the National Homelessness Law Center and True Colors United ranks Oregon as one of 18 states with a “low” score in terms of the laws and policies intended to prevent and address youth homelessness. By comparison, only six states — California, Washington, New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts and Maine — received a passing score.

Portland Tribune reporter Courtney Vaughn and Central Oregonian reporter Ramona McCallister contributed to this report.