Elizabeth Wilson got really good at hiding.
At night, she would head to an elementary school playground and crawl into the toy structure’s tunnel and sleep. Or she would find a concealed spot near a city park and create a makeshift bed. She knew adults weren’t allowed to legally spend the night in parks so it felt like a safer spot.
Wilson, who is from Central Oregon, was homeless off and on since she was 5. Some of the time she was with her parents, but as a teenager she was often on her own. When she was alone, she tried to avoid homeless adults.
“You’re afraid of adults in general, children don’t become homeless because of safe adults in their lives,” Wilson, now an adult, said.
That’s why homeless kids are often called ‘invisible children’ or ‘children in the shadows. Adults living without shelter often find safety in numbers, which explains why several tents are frequently clustered together on a city sidewalk or under a bridge. But homeless kids often try to go unnoticed. Some advocates believe that might explain why Oregon — despite historically having a high rate of homeless youths — spends relatively few state dollars to ensure homeless kids have appropriate shelter. And that’s despite a belief from some researchers who believe youth homelessness is the most common pathway into adult homelessness.
In a legislative session where lawmakers are throwing their weight behind $535 million to address a housing crisis plaguing the state, only about $9.5 million is proposed to specifically address the growing problem of youth homelessness.
House Republican Leader Christine Drazan, of Canby, recently testified in favor of House Bill 2544, which would give grants to organizations that provide services to homeless youth, including organizations that offer host homes for homeless youth.
“Oregon, as you guys know, has provided nominal support for unaccompanied youth compared to those in other states,” Drazan testified to members of the House Committee on Human Services.
Washington, for example, spends about $33 million every two-year budget cycle to support programs to help unaccompanied minors. Oregon has historically spent only about $2.5 million a biennium.
“Oregon is going to get $2.67 billion from the stimulus, we have $1.4 billion in reserves and the revenue forecast is up,” said Doug Riggs, a longtime Salem lobbyist. “The request (this legislative session totaling about $9.5 million) is a tiny fraction of that and it will reduce other costs to state and county and health programs.”
Since homeless youth are believed to more likely become homeless adults, some lawmakers and advocates are pushing for a more upstream approach — invest in homeless youths to curb the overall adult homeless population in the future.
Exact numbers on the amount of homeless youth in Oregon are hard to come by, since they are a difficult population to find and count. During the 2018-19 school year, Oregon estimated there were close to 3,700 houseless kids, but most admit that number is drastically lower than the actual amount.
Also, since that count, people have pointed out the numbers have undoubtedly become worse with the pandemic and wildfires that displaced thousands of Oregonians.
Lawmakers are also considering legislation this session that would create a long-term rental assistance pilot program for people age 25 and younger who have been: homeless, in foster care, incarcerated or detained in a correctional or detention facility or those who have been in a facility for mental health treatment.
House Speaker Tina Kotek said she hopes the pilot program leads the state toward offering permanent rental assistance for this population.
“We (the state of Oregon) are the parents of those children when they age out of the foster care system and we need to take care of them,” Kotek said.
Jesse Lippold, the youngest member of the Salem-Keizer school board, who experienced homelessness as a child, recently told lawmakers the fact he was in front of them testifying and doing well was statistically an anomaly.
“I know what it’s like. No kid should have to go through that,” he said. “I could spit data and facts at you all day … But I won’t go there. What I will touch on is the fact that we’re having this conversation goes to show the lack of ownership our state has had … over helping our youth have a shot at what we call the American Dream. How can we say kids have a chance, when you spend your childhood homeless?”
Lippold wasn’t the only person who testified to lawmakers about how they managed to beat the odds.
Wilson, the teenager who used to sleep in school playgrounds, also managed to find stable housing. A high school counselor noticed something was amiss and helped her find a shelter in Central Oregon that was just for young people.
“If I didn’t have that, I don’t think I would have known there were safe adults,” she said.
The stable housing and positive adult relationships were transformative. Wilson isn’t entirely sure how many schools she attended growing up, but she can count about 10 different ones. After she found stable shelter, she graduated high school and went on to take college courses. She currently works helping homeless youth in Central Oregon.
Now, she has a daughter of her own. Her daughter has a vague sense of what her mother went through growing up.
“She (recently) said to me, ‘I’m so glad I’ve never been hungry before and I never experienced that.’ That was my proudest moment ever. I knew I had changed the cycle. She has never experienced poverty and has never been homeless or hungry,” Wilson said, crediting that to the fact that she ultimately received support and structure from healthy adults.
Her daughter has only attended two schools, one elementary and one middle school in Central Oregon.