While the latest statistics from the Oregon Department of Education show that about 5% of Baker students could be considered homeless by the state’s standards, the percentage is actually much higher.
Kim Virtue, who works by contract as the District’s homeless liaison, says the actual percentage is closer to 12% at the District’s brick-and-mortar buildings, which as of January had a total enrollment of about 1,735 students.
The lower percentage is derived when enrollment at the Baker Web Academy, which is nearing 2,500 students, is included, Virtue said. Web Academy students attend a blend of online and face-to-face classes with instructors in areas throughout the state, and most of those students don’t live in Baker County.
Virtue, 67, retired from her longtime employment as a teacher and guidance counselor for the District in 2015, but she is still looking out for students as she heads into a new decade as homeless liaison.
Virtue says she is encouraged by money that districts throughout the state will receive via the Student Success Act.
The Legislature approved an additional $2 billion for schools last May, with a portion of the money to be raised by taxes on larger businesses. An estimated $1.5 million will come to the Baker School District through the Student Investment Account, and the Student Success Act will provide the District with an added $640 per student.
The Student Investment Account funds will be used in helping specific groups of students, including those who do not have stable housing and are considered homeless by the state Department of Education.
“It’s exciting,” Virtue says. “It’s been a long time since we’ve seen any dollars attached (to helping children recognized as homeless by the state).”
Assistant Superintendent Betty Palmer is scheduling meetings with students, parents and community groups, such as the YMCA, Headstart, Anthony Lakes and health care providers, to gather information about how Baker School District can make the best use of the new funding.
Palmer said she asks those participating in the sessions: “What are we not seeing that you see that we should be doing better?”
A 90-page document that details how the Baker School District will spend the money is due to the state by the end of March, she said.
The money is earmarked for, among other things, helping improve academic achievement for students who historically have not performed as well in school as their classmates.
That group can include homeless students.
“As we look at our disaggregated data, kids identified as coming from a homeless situation tend to not achieve as well, to not have as high an attendance rate and tend not to graduate at the same rates,” Palmer said.
“We haven’t as a district — and probably as a nation — found a way to help people who find themselves in those situations,” she said.
Virtue looks forward to being able to use some of the additional money to lend a hand to the children and families within her purview.
She begins offering that help annually during August registration.
“All the partners are there,” she says of the two-day Kiwanis Resource Fair that is part of Baker School District registration at the high school.
And Virtue is among those partners who are working with students who can use a little extra help navigating the school year successfully.
“I make sure the students don’t pay school fees, and that they have PE clothes and can register without any costs,” she said.
In Baker, 90% of the 197 students recognized as homeless are “doubled-up,” which means they are sharing a home with others because they’ve lost their housing, suffered an economic hardship or are in some similar situation, Virtue says.
Another 7% of the total are considered “unsheltered” because they live in trailer parks or are camping in the yards of family or friends. And the remaining 3% are considered “sheltered.” However, because there are no homeless shelters in the community, in Baker City the term comes to mean they are living in motels rooms.
Virtue said she received five calls on Jan. 6 from families in need of a place to stay. That Monday was planned as the first day back from Christmas break, but school was canceled because of snowy and icy road conditions.
Virtue said she reached out to the Compassion Center for short-term housing help for the people who had called her.
Community Connection has a variety of funding available on a first-come, first-served basis for housing assistance.
School district money cannot be used for housing, Virtue said. However, private donations to help provide emergency housing may be made through Marla’s Mall.
Members of St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, where Palmer and retired school administrator Beth Bigelow and their families attend, contributed to the housing fund with donations that came in during the church’s first Groundhog Day Festival on Feb. 1. The church collected $541.50 for that purpose, said the Rev. Aletha Bonebrake.
She said the church organized the festival as an outreach project, with the funds to be split between its own food pantry, which sits outside the church building, and the emergency housing fund at Marla’s Mall.
“There’s a lot of need out in the community that isn’t just food — it’s also housing,” Bonebrake said. “We decided we can take care of our food bank OK and this (money) can help the people at Marla’s Mall help people with housing.”
The mall is located in the former North Baker School building at 2725 Seventh St. Hours are 7:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Thursday. Through the mall, named in memory of former longtime teacher Marla Cavallo who died of cancer in 2007, the school district provides families help with clothing, household goods and other items for no charge. Marla’s Mall is kept stocked with items donated by community members.
The inventory also includes hygiene products, and boots and shoes, along with small furniture and appliances, cooking tools and backpacks. At this time, Marla’s Mall is in need of winter items, such as new or used boots of all sizes, snow pants, coats, blankets and household goods, Virtue said.
Food is not part of the offering at Marla’s Mall but Virtue seeks donations of nonperishable food items to keep on hand for her students and to fill food pantries placed in the community to help those in need.
Products such as boxed macaroni and cheese, canned chili or noodle cups are always welcome, she said.
The generosity of the community continues to amaze Virtue year after year.
“It not about people not caring,” she says. “People are so generous — everybody wants to help.”
For many years people have helped students get ready for the return to school. The Salvation Army sponsors its Backpack Program, collecting school supplies, including stacks of pencils, pens and paper donated for the new year.
As winter approached this year, hand-knitted hats were donated to Marla’s Mall by a group of women who attend church together, enjoy needlework and wanted to help out. Donations of socks and gloves also came in.
The items were distributed during a Christmas open house.
A back-to-school night was scheduled at Marla’s Mall before classes began this fall to help students upgrade their wardrobes and supplies for a new year of classes.
Virtue says her job has been both rewarding and heartbreaking over the years.
“We have so many success stories of people who would have had it really tough if we hadn’t been able to help,” she said.
The heartbreak is that she can’t do more.
“As an old lady, I want to fix everything,” she says. “That’s my job, but I can’t.”