She was 17. She had nowhere to live - or at least nowhere remotely stable or healthy - but she didn't want to give up on her future. She's smart, funny and has plans to go to college.
Her name is Oneta and she's a junior at Bend High, but had circumstances been different, she very well may have been another Central Oregon youth without a warm place to stay, little to eat and hardly a shred of hope. But now, she's living at Cascade Youth & Family Center's Living Options For Teens (LOFT), is getting good grades, playing on the softball team and beginning her search for a college where she hopes to study genetic engineering. A transitional living program for those between the ages of 16 and 21, the LOFT is both a hangout and a home for teens who might not have anywhere else to go.
In Oneta's case, she had bounced around between Alaska and Central Oregon. Her life had become anything but stable and schoolwork wasn't always at the front of her mind. At one point, she was living with six family members in a small trailer. After a stint in Alaska, she returned to Central Oregon last summer and made the decision to leave her family, as it were. But before she headed out on her own, Oneta heard about the LOFT. For the past two decades, CYFC - a division of J Bar J Youth Services - has been providing a number of services in the area, including a crisis hotline, a family mediation, assistance in finding community resources and a number of other services. The LOFT, however, is CYFC's residential service for teens, housing about a dozen young people.
"I realized that the only way things were going to change would be if I changed them myself," she says, sitting at a long table on the bottom level of CYFC's location on Century Drive, a former hostel on the westside of Bend.
Oneta has been in the LOFT program for seven months now. Her grades continue to be solid and she's made a strong group of friends at school and at the LOFT.
"For the first time, I feel like I'm free to just do my thing. It's amazing," she says with a smile.
Oneta is just one of many Central Oregon homeless youth, a segment of the community that's seen its rank swell over the past few years. During the last school year, the Bend-La Pine School District counted nearly 800 students who were living in shelters, temporary housing or with relatives, among other situations. The growth in the student homeless population has been a statewide phenomenon. State Schools Superintendent Susan Castillo said that during the 2009-2010 school year, Oregon categorized 19,040 students as homeless, a 5.5-percent jump from the previous year. Since the state began counting homeless students seven years ago, the percentage of homeless students has expanded by 134 percent.
LIFE AT THE LOFT
Pat Gundy has been working at CYFC for the past three years as the program's manager. As he recounts stories of the different kids he's seen come through the LOFT during that time, he points to a picture on the wall and relays a story about a troubled young girl who struggled with substance abuse, but is now on her way to becoming a hair stylist in the San Francisco area. Then, Gundy tells of another young woman who was stuck in a chaotic situation at home with neglectful parents. She came to the LOFT rather than drop out of school and is now a 4.0 student at the University of Oregon.
Gundy and others who work with homeless youth in Central Oregon feel that this group has been somewhat stereotyped as a specific flock of kids hanging around downtown. In reality, Gundy says, that stereotype reflects the minority.
"A lot of the kids that are homeless in this area aren't the ones downtown. They're kids who just want to go to school, and that puts a different face on the problem," says Gundy, who spent about 20 years working with troubled youth in Oakland before taking the job in Bend, where he's owned a second home for two decades.
CYFC and the LOFT have been operating in Central Oregon for more than 20 years and are funded by federal grant money, in addition to funds from the United Way, Deschutes County's youth and family programs and the juvenile justice system. There are typically about a dozen kids living in the home at one time, most of them between the ages of 16 and 18. Some arrive at the LOFT on their own accord, while others are referred by the school district.
At the LOFT, residents are required to meet a set of expectations. They have chores and a 6 p.m. curfew. They are required to keep up on schoolwork and get job training while developing job-seeking skills. In return, Gundy and his staff give the kids the stability they need.
"They've run away from home or they're homeless due to a financial situation at home or not being able to get their needs met," says Gundy, "The first step is to get those needs met. Make sure they have a place to stay, food to eat and get them enrolled in school."
While the rules might seem strict to outsiders, the atmosphere inside the narrow baby-blue building on the westside is anything but stuffy. At time, the space looks more like a social club than a spot for the homeless - boys and girls circulate through the space, toting backpacks and chatting about the sort of things you'd expect from kids this age. They get out of the home frequently to exercise at Juniper or volunteer at area charities. The mood is surprisingly upbeat and when you ring the doorbell, a young smiling face is likely to arrive and swing open the door.
Education is a key component to what Gundy and his staff do at The Loft. If a resident has been out of high school for a stint, they'll help him or her get back into class and if they've almost wrapped up, they might assist them in getting a GED. For some, there's help finding financial aid for college and completing applications. Then, there's mock job interviews and resume tutorials - it's all part of what Gundy sees as preparing them to fully step out on their own.
"My goal is for them to be able to transition to individual living so they can contribute to the community rather than taking from it," says Gundy.
IN THE SCHOOLS
The educational goals of the the LOFT's residents wouldn't be as easily achieved without assistance from the school district and its employees, who are charged with the seemingly monumental task of identifying which students are actually homeless so they can receive assistance.
"The biggest part of understanding this problem is understanding the definition of homelessness," says Dana Arntson, federal programs director for the Bend La Pine schools.
She says that many people think of homeless students as those living in camps or shelters or on the street, when in actuality, federal guidelines consider the definition of a homeless student to be much broader. If a student's family has moved in with friends or family to make ends meet, that student would be considered homeless. If the student's family is residing in a motel, he or she would be considered homeless. It's for this reason that all 1,600-plus employees of the school district, from teachers and principals to bus drivers, are trained on how to identify a homeless student. The 799 homeless students counted in the 2009-2010 school year by the district made up for 5.1 percent of the district's total enrollment.
Both the Bend and Redmond school districts employ a homeless liaison to assist these students. In the Bend - La Pine district, that person is Mel Parker, who previously worked at CYFC (and still has plenty of interaction with the program). She says that there are currently 211 homeless high school students in the district and it's often these students who are out on their own.
"Included in that number, of the 11th and 12th graders, I would say 75 percent are on their own. They might be couch surfing and working a number of jobs - that's not uncommon," says Parker.
Arntson says that Parker's position, which is funded through federal funds and money from the school district's general fund, is integral to caring for the area's rising number of homeless youth, something that is actually mandated by the federal government.
"I don't think we could do the job we do for kids without someone in this position. We have so many families that are in transition that we need to continue protecting their kids," says Arnston.
But like Gundy at the CYFC, Arnston can't foresee too far into the future when it comes to federal funding. The Recovery Act of 2009 appropriated funds to help identify youth homelessness, but that $70 million is just a drop in the bucket of what's needed to sustain youth homelessness programs on a long-term basis.
Gundy says they would love to have that aspect of their mission come back, but right now the funding for such outreach isn't readily at hand.
"The need is greater than ever, but the funds are less than ever, so it's a tough puzzle to solve," he says
Finding Bend's Homeless Teens
The lack in funding for youth homelessness programs was seen at Cascade Youth & Family Center when the organization had to cut its outreach program. One of their employees would drive around town in a Chevy Malibu stocked with food, personal hygiene items, sleeping bags, clothing and whatever else homeless teens in the area might need. He'd chat with teens and make connections and do whatever he could to let these kids know what the program could do to help them.
But that doesn't mean there aren't people out there assisting our area's youth, and one of those groups is Icon City, a relatively new network of volunteers that has been raising awareness about social issues via music and entertainment events at the Tower Theatre. The group, which interacts with other area nonprofits, including the Family Access Network, has also hit the pavement to lend a hand to homeless teens.
Icon City is down in Drake Park interacting with those in need every Sunday from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. and are armed with plenty of supplies to hand out. Williams says the organization also has volunteers on the streets most days to check in on the youth they've encountered. They - like the other groups mentioned in this story and many not mentioned - also assisted with the annual one-day homeless count back in January, the result of which will be released in the coming weeks.
"Because of the sheer numbers (of homeless people), there's definitely a need and as a community, there's a way we can alleviate that," says Icon City's Wade Williams, who assists in coordinating volunteers for the program, "We can provide a coat and a hot meal and make sure they have socks, pants and shirts."
Of course, our young people need all of those things, but they also need a chance, as Pat Gundy, director of the Cascade Youth & Family Center says. Part of that, he says, is for our community to realize that these kids aren't a bunch of punks, they're mostly just kids who got the short end of the stick as they grew up.
"When people see these kids, they're actually seeing a kid that's like everybody else's kid, but might come from a different set of circumstances," says Gundy.