Rayna Woods turned 15 years old the day she ran away from home.
She’s 19 now, but she remembers the day — her birthday — clearly. It was March 4, 2014, and Woods had reached a breaking point. She wanted a safe, more stable living situation that it seemed could be more easily found on the streets than at her father’s house.
“It was really abusive, and I guess at that point I felt like I had been through enough and that I would rather be homeless than stay there,” she said. “Literally anything was better than living there.”
For about eight months, Woods was homeless. She slept outside often, including in tents in downtown Eugene. When the weather became colder, she was able to sleep on friends’ couches and living room floors.
She felt safe on the streets, for the most part, because her mother also was homeless, and she had established some relationships.
“I had a sort of homeless family that I had built over the years,” she said. “I used to pass out meals to the homeless when I was younger, so I knew a lot of the faces that I would see.”
Woods’ situation is not unique.
In 2014, when Woods mostly was living on the streets, she was one of 20,524 students in Oregon identified as homeless by public school officials. During the 2016-17 school year, the most recent year for which data is available, 22,541 students were identified as homeless — about 4 percent of the overall K-12 student population in the state.
Oregon identified more homeless students than any other state in the nation in the 2014-15 school year, according to the Institute for Children, Poverty and Homelessness. The state of New York was ranked No. 2. Mississippi identified the fewest homeless students that same school year.
Locally, the number of students who are homeless also is steadily increasing — during the 2016-2017 school year nearly 2,200 students in the Eugene, Bethel and Springfield school districts were determined to be homeless.
For example, the Bethel School District has seen one of the most significant jumps in recent years, with the percent of enrolled students who are homeless increasing from about 3 percent of the overall district population during the 2005-2006 school year to nearly 10 percent during the 2016-17 school year. Enrollment in the district during the same time period has mostly decreased, albeit only slightly.
The numbers are staggering and education officials are challenged to address the need. More and more kids are becoming homeless, local and state homeless-student officials say, due to a lack of affordable housing. Unemployment and a lack of good-paying jobs also are factors that contribute to the increasing number of homeless Oregon students, according to the Oregon Department of Education.
But in Eugene, several organizations, local and otherwise, are working to reduce the number of homeless students through a variety of programs and services, including A Family for Every Child. The Eugene-based non-profit ultimately helped Woods find a consistent, stable living situation.
A Family for Every Child aims to help children in the foster care system and other youth be permanently adopted by their “forever family.” Established in 2006, the organization recently started a host home program specifically serving the area's homeless youth, ages 11 to 17.
The program, started last year, works to find families willing to temporarily provide housing for homeless youth who are attending school and working to earn their high school diploma or GED. So far, 10 kids have been placed with families.
Bethel district homeless liaison Donna Butera said although the program is relatively young and has reached a seemingly small population, it's making a big impact in the lives of many.
"It seems like a small number," Butera said. "But that's 10 fewer kids who are on the street. That's 10 kids who now have a guaranteed place to come home to. Even if it's not for forever, it can begin to establish a sense of safety and trust with adults and help to move youth toward a positive future."
Under the Elementary and Secondary Schools Act, student homelessness is defined as children and youth who “lack a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence.” The definition includes those who live in homeless shelters and transitional housing units; share housing with others because of economic hardship or live in motels, tents or trailers for lack of someplace better, according to the state Education Department.
Nationally, 1.3 million students were homeless in the 2014-15 school year, according to the National Center for Education Statistic. That's the the most recent year for which data was collected. Since 2008, the number of homeless students identified by public schools each year has inearly doubled, from approximately 680,000 to 1.3 million in the 2013-14 school year, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
A call to help
Roger Bascue, 69, and his wife Joyce Bascue, 59, of west Eugene, are among the families who have taken a chance, offering their home to Woods.
A Family For Every Child connected the Bascues with Woods and her 1-year-old daughter, Raelynn. The family has agreed to host mother and daughter until Woods can find stable, affordable housing or she completes her education. She's taking four classes at Lane Community College with hopes of eventually transferring to Oregon State University to pursue a degree in veterinary medicine.
Living with the Bascues is the “most stable housing situation she’s ever had,” Woods said.
For the majority of her teens, Woods slept on couches, stayed with friends and family and sometimes slept outside — never really knowing what the next day would bring or whether she'd have a roof over her head. That worry ended when she came to stay with the Bascues.
While the current living arrangement works well, Woods and the Bascues acknowledge the situation is challenging at times due to a variety of factors, including a generational gap, child-rearing approaches and schedules.
“There’s three generations between us,” Roger Bascue said sitting in a reclining chair in his living room. “There are major differences in the ways that we’ve experienced life.”
“Joyce and I grew up with two parents and a stable home life,” Roger Bascue continued. “My parents lived in the same house for decades. Rayna has never had that, she’s been on her own, trying to figure out life by herself for years.”
Roger Bascue said the couple doesn't try to control Woods or make her follow certain rules to live in their home — nor do they want to.
“If she opens the door to have a conversation, we walk through it, but we don’t try to give advice or suggest how she should live her life,” he said. “She’s an independent woman and she’s worked hard to gain that.”
Joyce Bascue said the couple has offered advice to Woods about the baby's sleep schedule or maintaining consistent routines, but Woods likes to make her own decisions, like she has for the past several years.
Despite the challenges of living with a teen mom and her 1-year-old — who were complete strangers before March — Joyce and Roger Bascue believe that if they can help someone, they should.
“I was brought up (to believe) that this is the thing to do,” Roger Bascue said. “We have the space and availability to help, and there’s a need.”
Plus, the couple loves having a baby in the house and helping Woods to stay on track in school by providing a stable living environment.
"It's definitely a different situation than we thought it would be," said Joyce Bascue, who has a 29-year-old son with her husband. "We thought we would operate like more of a family, but she's very independent and that's OK. We committed to helping her while she's in school and that's what we're going to do."
Bridging the gap
Families participating in the host program aren't paid. The organization has a strict and thorough process of vetting potential host families as well as students to determine eligibility and if the situation would be a positive experience for all involved. Representatives from the organization also regularly check in with students and host families to ensure the arrangement is working.
Not every child experiencing homelessness is recommended to the A Family for Every Child host home program. It takes “the right type of student and family” to make the host program work, officials say.
Students are referred to the program through local school district homeless liaisons who work to identify homeless students and provide them with various services or items. Sometimes that’s a bus pass or vouchers for food, other times it could be a sleeping bag or a referral to organizations such as A Family for Every Child.
Homeless youth also access the program through 15th Night, a community coalition that acts as a safety net for young people experiencing homelessness. A Family for Every Child provides host home services in its role as a partner in the coalition.
“Not all youth are a great candidate for this program,” said Anthonia Ambrusko, a permanency specialist and spokeswoman for A Family for Every Child. “Some students aren’t receptive to the idea of living with someone they don’t know. They’d much rather sleep on the couch of someone they’re familiar with.”
That’s because many of the students who are eligible for the program have a difficult time trusting people.
“These are kids who have been let down by adults over and over again in life,” Ambrusko said. “So, there’s a level of distrust that they have for us. They hear about a host home program and they think they’ll be placed in foster care or be sent back to their parents.”
Finding families to commit to hosting students is sometimes difficult, according to A Family for Every Child officials, who say they attempt to recruit families through events, email outreach and word-of-mouth.
Trust issues are often two-sided and it’s difficult for the organization to find families willing to trust homeless youth, Ambrusko said.
“There’s an idea that a youth experiencing homelessness is a delinquent who doesn’t want to follow the rules. That they’re untrustworthy and are going to steal and do drugs,” she said. “But in reality, these are kids who left home because whatever was out on the streets was better than what was happening in their home life.”
What Roger Bascue describes — a calling to help others — is partly why Christy Obie-Barrett, a mother of 12, founded A Family for Every Child in 2006.
Obie-Barrett said she wanted to find a way to help youth who may not have a home or a family. “I wanted to do something to continue to affect children’s lives and not adopt every one of them,” she said with a laugh.
Obie-Barrett has adopted nine of her 12 children, who range in age from 19 to 40, mostly because there was a need.
"When we got married we had or adopted 10 kids in 10 years," she said. "I think the need prompted us; I was surprised (by) how many children and, even, infants were in need, and how much I loved growing our family."
She's also known for a long time that homeless youth in the area have very few places to go.
“Available housing for youth in our community is really difficult to find,” she said. “Most of the homeless shelters we have are for adults, with the exception of Station 7, which is the only housing we have for homeless youth and is limited to a handful of beds and a certain time limit. It doesn’t meet the needs of homeless youth.”
Station 7 is a temporary emergency shelter for runaway children ages 11 to 17. The shelter is operated through Looking Glass Community Services, a nonprofit that serves more than 8,000 youth each year. In 2017, Station 7 sheltered more than 180 homeless youth and provided day shelter, basic needs, counseling, drug treatment, medical care and school or educational services to over 700 runaway homeless youth clients.
Seth Harto, 19, was one of them.
Harto was 13 years old and in middle school when his mother lost her job and became homeless. He lived by himself on the streets for nearly two years, intermittently sleeping on friends' couches and sometimes staying with his grandparents.
Even though he was homeless, the teen still made it to school nearly every day.
“School was a good place to be,” he said.
But during his sophomore and junior years at Willamette High School in the west Eugene, he started to miss some school. His mother decided it was better for him to spend time with her, Harto said.
When he was 17 and in his junior year of high school, Harto was struggling. He often thought about suicide and felt hopeless about his future.
“I really didn’t like being cold,” Harto said. “I also had this fear that I was going to die, which sounds dramatic, but after being in my situation for so long, I thought I was going to live on the streets for the rest of my life and die in my 20s.”
So in early 2017, Harto met with homeless liaison Butera, and she suggested A Family for Every Child's host home program.
“The places he had been living were no longer options for him, so I asked him how he would feel about staying with someone else and at that point he was ready,” Butera said. “It takes a certain type of person and he was willing to give it a try.”
“There’s a lot of apprehension about staying with a stranger,” Butera said. “But Seth had a lot of stress at that point about where he was going to be sleeping, he didn’t want to be back on the street, so he was really excited to move in there.”
It took a little while to find the right placement, but in September 2017, Harto moved in with a local woman willing to host the teen.
And it was just what Harto needed.
“She pushed me to be better,” Harto said. “She was the reason I was able to get a job and the reason I would go out every day to get my education.”
Harto said when he first moved into his host home, he had a hard time adjusting. After living on the streets for years, he lacked the experience of living inside of a home and was unaware of the etiquette of staying at someone's house. He also was living in a basement with a low ceiling that was slightly too short for the young man who stands taller than six feet.
"I didn't know how to clean up after myself," he said. "I never had a room of my own or a kitchen to cook in."
Eventually, he got the hang of personal responsibility, and while living with a complete stranger was uncomfortable at times, Harto said his about year-long stay in the woman’s home helped him immensely.
“Well, for one, I had a roof over my head," he said. "Plus, anything I needed, she was there for me. She helped me get my life together when I really needed it.”
Harto now lives with a family friend off of Royal Avenue in north Eugene. He plans to remain there for a few years until he can finish school and move into an apartment with his long-term boyfriend.
Harto and Woods say A Family for Every Child and their host families have played a significant role in helping them to feel safe, stable and able to focus on school.
“ ... I’m thankful for this,” Woods said. “I’m so happy my daughter has a safe place to grow, at least for now.”