The number of homeless students is at an all-time high across the state, with Jackson County ranking second with 2,452 students, according to data released by the Oregon Department of Education.

The homeless rates in the Medford, Phoenix-Talent, Eagle Point, Rogue River and Butte Falls school districts have increased since 2014-15. And Butte Falls currently has the highest percentage — 35.62 — of homeless students in the state.

“When you get off the main highways in these small communities, it’s challenging to have the resources and supports that families need today,” said Butte Falls Interim Superintendent Phil Long.

Statewide, 21,352 students, or 3.7 percent of the public school kindergarten through 12th-grade population, are considered homeless, as defined by the federal McKinney‐Vento Homeless Assistance Act. That doesn't necessarily mean they don't have a roof over their heads but rather that they “lack a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence” and can indicate they are living in emergency shelters, motels or hotels or are doubled up in a house with another family.

But it also can mean they have no shelter and are sleeping under a bridge, in a vehicle or an abandoned building, explained Dona Bolt, the state’s coordinator of the homeless education program.

“This is the highest rate ever, and we’ve been collecting data on this population since the 1980s,” Bolt said. “But in 2004 and 2005, we started collecting it more uniformly and made an even deeper methodology change in 2012, giving us all this really, really robust data.”

In 2012, the federal government began requiring districts to provide homeless students’ identification numbers, as well as information about their living situation and whether they were homeless with their families or on their own.

“The majority of our students are homeless with their families,” said Mary Ferrell, executive director of Maslow Project, a nonprofit group that helps homeless youth, from babies up to 21-year-olds, and their families in Southern Oregon.

In 2015-16, about 332 kids countywide were listed as homeless and unaccompanied.

According to ODE’s 2015-16 data, released last week, Medford has the third-highest number of homeless students (1,364) of any school district in the state.

Of Medford’s homeless students, 139 live in a shelter, 80 live in a hotel or motel, 1,052 live in a home with at least one other family, and 94 are unsheltered.

The Medford School District, as well as the Ashland, Phoenix-Talent, Rogue River and Grants Pass school districts, contracts with Maslow Project to provide services to its homeless population.

The organization provides a variety of services ranging from mental-health counseling and case management to food, clothing, hygiene items, laundry and access to computers.

“The reality is that those are just the tools we use to alleviate the stress of not having your needs met enough for students to focus on school success,” Ferrell said.

As of June 30, 2016, Medford’s four-year graduation rate for homeless seniors was 51 percent, much higher than the state and national average. (The number does not include students who completed their credits for graduation over the summer.) Of the seniors Maslow served last year in Medford, 70 percent graduated, Ferrell said.

The Center on Family Homelessness reports that homeless students are 87 percent more likely to drop out of school.

“There isn’t a one-size-fits-all reason why individuals end up homeless, and there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution,” Ferrell said.

Generational poverty, systemic poverty, mental health issues, substance abuse issues, domestic violence and a history of family trauma are just some of the core reasons why students and their families are homeless. But a recent contributor is the state and county’s low vacancy rate, Ferrell said.

“Even the (families) who are able to stabilize, have found employment and are ready to be housed are not able to find available housing,” she said. “We are finding the new trend is families are staying homeless longer than they need to because of the low vacancy rate.”

As of October, there were 6,296 rental units in Jackson and Josephine counties. Of those, only 87, or 1.38 percent, were vacant, according to the Southern Oregon Renters Association. (These numbers include only SORA members and a handful of other rental management companies in the area and represent about 65 to 70 percent of the rental market for the area.)

With the lack of housing, there is nothing to prevent landlords from increasing the rent due to demand and forcing families who can no longer afford it out onto the streets, Bolt said.

The recent increase in the number of homeless students also reflects the expansion of early childhood programs, which allows educators to identify preschool-age homeless children, Bolt said.

According to ODE’s data, there were 1,314 preschool-age students identified as homeless in 2014-15 and 1,929 in 2015-16 statewide.

“We’ve got this great collaboration with Head Start, which has allowed us to better identify homeless students ages 3 to 5,” she said. “Before, we only had data from public school preschools, which not every elementary school even offered.”

Aside from warming shelters in Ashland, the only family homeless shelter in Jackson and Josephine counties is St. Vincent de Paul’s 44-bed shelter at 2424 N. Pacific Highway in Medford. However, the shelter will be closed from Dec. 5 to Jan. 5 for renovations.

“Right now we have a family of five — and the mom is pregnant with twins — living in their car,” Ferrell said. “We have a lot of families couch-surfing, camping, sleeping in cars or, occasionally, they’ll stay a night in a hotel, which we can sometimes assist with.”

Ferrell said the Maslow Project is in need of cold winter gear and easy-to-prepare, kid-friendly food. There also are opportunities for people to purchase a homeless student’s cap and gown, cover the cost of GED testing or sponsor a student and his or her family for Christmas. For more information on donating, see www.maslowproject.com.

Reach education reporter Teresa Thomas at 541-776-4497 or tthomas@mailtribune.com. Follow her at www.twitter.com/teresathomas_mt.

Jackson County homeless student counts by Mail Tribune on Scribd