PORTLAND, Ore. (PORTLAND TRIBUNE) — While watching television one night, Jamie Cochran was struck with an idea. The news featured two East Coast women and the waterproof crocheted mats they made to keep homeless people in their town warm and dry.

As federal programs secretary for Reynolds School District, she knew of many students who were considered homeless. So Cochran decided to bring the waterproof mat idea to her community.

“I thought it would be a cool because it would not only keep the plastic out of the landfills, but also help families at the same time,” Cochran said. “I put out a notice asking for people to send in plastic bags, and ended up with thousands and thousands.”

So, with the help of colleagues from Reynolds, Cochran hosted an event to create the waterproof mats. More than 100 volunteers showed up Saturday, Dec. 3, to crochet the mats while enjoying a potluck at Anthem Church on Northeast 223rd Avenue in Gresham.

“It’s just all so new, we really have been flying by the seat of our pants,” Cochran said with a laugh. “I don’t think I’ve slept in weeks, but it’s great to see it all come together.”

Each waterproof mat takes about 500 to 700 plastic bags to lace together, and represents a dry and warm place for people to use at night — be it outside in the elements or on an uncomfortable couch. Several stations were set up at Saturday’s event, allowing every volunteer to help. For those who didn’t know how to crochet, there was plenty of prep work: flattening bags, cutting seams and loops, and stringing them into balls.

While community members attended, the majority of the volunteers were from the Reynolds High School dance team, who chose to forgo their normal weekend practice to make a difference for their peers.

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“When I broached the subject of helping out today, they were all super excited to volunteer,” said coach Janna Johnson.

By the numbers

More than 21,340 students, or 3.7 percent of the Oregon K-12 student body, meet the federal definition of homeless. That means on any given night, a city of children roughly the size of Milwaukie, Ashland, Roseburg, Wilsonville or Newberg “lack a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence,” according to 2015-16 data released last month.

Here’s how school districts in the north Willamette Valley compare:

Clackamas County Number (Percent)

Lake Oswego 27 (0.4)

West Linn-Wilsonville 58 (0.6)

Colton 6 (1)

Estacada 28 (1)

Oregon Trail 46 (1)

Molalla River 58 (2.1)

North Clackamas 374 (2.2)

Gladstone 58 (2.7)

Oregon City 380 (4.7)

Canby 357 (7.6)

Columbia County

Clatskanie 11 (1.6)

Rainier 20 (2)

St Helens 77 (2.5)

Vernonia 18 (3.3)

Scappoose 83 (3.4)

Marion County

North Marion 21 (1.1)

St Paul N/A (1.9)

Cascade 54 (2.4)

Silver Falls 93 (2.4)

Salem-Keizer 1,120 (2.7)

North Santiam 69 (3)

Woodburn 210 (3.7)

Mt. Angel 38 (5.4)

Jefferson 59 (6.6)

Gervais 71 (6.6)

Multnomah County

Riverdale N/A (0.0)

Corbett 12 (1.0)

Gresham-Barlow 334 (2.8)

Portland 1,434 (3)

David Douglas 471 (4.3)

Centennial 406 (6.4)

Parkrose 279 (8.4)

Reynolds 1,128 (9.8)

Washington County

Banks N/A (0.5)

Sherwood 55 (1)

Forest Grove 104 (1.7)

Hillsboro 369 (1.8)

Tigard-Tualatin 254 (2)

Beaverton 1,382 (3.4)

Gaston 33 (5.4)

Yamhill County

Willamina 16 (1.9)

Dayton 23 (2.3)

Yamhill Carlton 29 (2.6)

McMinnville 197 (2.9)

Amity 28 (3.2)

Newberg 237 (4.6)

Sheridan 102 (9.8)

Many homeless students find themselves doubled up with other families, sleeping in cars, RVs and even tents. The idea is that by turning the plastic bags into crocheted mats, the community will be able to provide a comfortable and dry place to sleep no matter where the students find themselves.

“Expansion of services in recent years into early childhood programs has created awareness of the extent of homelessness among Oregon’s youngest children,” said Dona Bolt, state coordinator of the federal McKinney-Vento Program that provides funding and support for homeless student education.

Oregon Department of Education officials say despite an upturn in the state economy, the number of homeless students in Oregon has grown each of the past three years and now exceeds the level during the depths of the Great Recession.

“We know that students dealing with difficult life circumstances have a much harder time in the classroom,” said Deputy Superintendent Salam Noor. “Our goal is to make the school environment as stable as possible for homeless students through the hard work of school district homeless liaisons and their partners, who provide direct services to homeless families and youths in communities throughout the state.”

Community approach

A holistic approach seems to be the best way forward for addressing the problem. At the waterproof mat event, many of the plastic bags were donated by Fred Meyer stores and other people who were unable to attend but wanted to help.

Cochran wants to see this event catch on. While there are no plans for another day of crocheting, she is interested in reaching out to some of the local retirement communities to see about having their residents make mats as well. Some of the people who helped at the event also took bags home with them to continue making more.

“I would love to see all of this keep going because I think it really can help the community,” Cochran said.