FOURTEEN STUDENTS sit in a circle in the basement of Jefferson High School while the summer sun blazes outside. They are there to talk about their feelings.
"How many people here have more than 10 brothers and sisters?" asks counselor Robin Mayther. Four students raise their hands—the winner has 25 siblings. Today is another day in the first summer camp led by Project Return, the Portland Public Schools' program for homeless students.
The number of homeless students in Oregon has increased alarmingly in the past three years—4,223 more students were homeless during the 2007 school year than in 2005. But three years ago, in 2005, Project Return's staff was slashed by more than half. These cuts, combined with Portland's affordable housing crisis, means the school system is relying more and more on donations and teachers' tenacity to keep homeless kids in school.
With 10 staff members back in 2004, Project Return provided services for 2,000 Portland students. Now reduced to three and a half full-time positions stretched over 100 schools, the counselors only make contact with 1,230 students, even though the number of homeless students statewide is on the rise.
The hardest part of Project Return Coordinator Kerry Tintera's job is outreach: figuring out who is homeless and how to help them. "Homeless looks a lot different than it did 30 or 40 years ago," she says. "These could be families living in motels along Interstate or kids living on their own or couch surfing."
Tintera and Mayther see the lack of affordable housing in Portland as a major cause in the increase of homeless students. Students who once lived in cheap apartments now live on in-laws' sofas.
The counselors at Project Return are a tight-knit team determined to muscle through budget cuts with creativity. This summer, they dug up grant money to start an innovative summer camp that pairs Jefferson High School student mentors with incoming homeless freshmen.
Tuesday, July 1, the camp is off to a rough start: One of the mentors called to say she could not come in because her family was being evicted that day. Still, the students who do arrive are happy to work on a craft project and dispense high school survival advice when prodded.
"Don't lollygag," says Maggie Ibarra, a senior mentor with five tattoos and flashy acrylic nails. "If you get behind in credits, it's so hard to make them up."
Credit recovery is one of Project Return's biggest programs. Since homeless students tend to miss class, they often get behind and give up on ever graduating. Students involved in Project Return graduate at the same rate as non-homeless students, according to Tintera.
"We're not going to end homelessness," Tintera says, sitting on a sofa next to a stack of cardboard boxes filled with food. "Our mission is to keep them in school and give them all the same opportunities other kids have."