Kids suffer under poverty, homelessness

There are some 45,600 children 17 and younger in Jackson County. They are everywhere, large and small, walking home from school, running on playgrounds, chattering to one another, energetic, resilient, filled with hope and promise.

Most are well cared for, go to school, and live their young lives relatively free from concerns.

But not all. Many struggle daily with obstacles that can seem all but insurmountable and face circumstances that are beyond their control. For some, an ever-present, wrenching fear defines their days, and uncertainty is etched into every expression.

What are the challenges facing those children in Jackson County who, for a myriad of reasons, exist on the frayed edges of our society? What is the content of their lives?

Poverty

To grow up on the precipice of poverty is to live a fundamentally different life from children who grow up with relative affluence.

According to the 2009 federal poverty level threshold, a family of four, earning $22,050, is considered to be living in poverty. Oregon First for Children states that 7,025 children in Jackson County live in poverty. Almost 50 percent of the county's public school children are eligible to receive free or reduced-price lunches during the school year.

A family of four earning $44,000 is identified as low income. Thirty percent of Oregon families are low income, and nearly 40 percent of Oregon's children reside in a low-income family. One in 20 Oregon households reported "very low" food security, meaning families did not consume their normal diet because of lack of money for food. According to the Oregon Department of Human Services, one out of every seven Oregonians now receives food stamps to supplement their food budget.

The distress of working poor families has only been exacerbated by the current severe economic downturn, both locally and nationally, and the full impact of growing unemployment on families and their children is just beginning to be assessed.

But how does a child cope with the sustained and and daily undercurrents of financial instability with the attendant family stressors?

"For children, poverty can be characterized by hunger — hunger for food, for love, for warmth, for affection," writes Mary Curtis, executive director of the Family Nurturing Center, Jackson County's relief nursery. "Poverty can be a time of waning expectation and hope. It can impact physical health (lice, asthma, tooth decay) and mental health in multiple ways."

Growing up in a low-income family puts a child at risk. They score lower on standardized tests. They are more likely to have learning disabilities, repeat a grade, and more likely to drop out of school. They have limited access to health care and will more likely have chronic health care problems such as anemia or die in childhood.

Marlene Mish, executive director of Children's Advocacy Center, when asked how children who live in poverty cope, wrote, "Cope? These kids are in survival mode. They self-medicate their pain away. They look for love in all the wrong places. They get negative attention. They have low self-esteem and do not believe in a future that includes a big dream for them. They get angry and the rest is history. They start the cycle all over again." To take another path, commented Mish, requires an "extraordinary resilience and one person out there who believes in him or her."

Homeless children

Nationally, before the current recession, it was estimated that 1.6 million people, including 340,000 children, were homeless, many living on the streets, in cars or in shelters. Some are alone, others cling, precariously, to their families. Their numbers continue to increase.

While it is all but impossible to have an accurate count of homeless children in Jackson County, the League of Women Voters' 2005 study estimates that some 24,000 Oregon youths, ages 12 to 21, lack a stable residence and are living away from their parent or guardian. Most are not in contact with service agencies.

"They often have no address, identification documents and no parental assistance in financial matters," according to the study. "Many have lost or severed contact with their parents or extended family."

Mary Ferrell, director of the Maslow Project, a local agency that works with children and families who cannot meet their basic needs, writes, "Many of our children have no place to go at night, sleeping in cars, hotel rooms, couch surfing and some camping in the parks and greenways. They find 'street family members' for protection and support. They get their belongings stolen frequently and often struggle to hold onto important documents creating problems when applying for jobs and services.

"They have no place to do homework at night and many are too preoccupied with basic survival concerns to sit through daily classes at school — where their next meal is coming from, how to wash clothes, how to get to school. The city bus costs between $35 to $70 a month. Some are living with their parents in motels and shelters, or doubled up with another family. Some have been kicked out, run away or separated from their families, almost always due to family dysfunction: substance abuse, domestic violence, mental health issues, or poverty-related issues.

"Most are not homeless by choice and if they are it is because that is a better alternative to what they left."

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