People of faith from across Oregon gathered on the steps of the Oregon State Capitol in a driving rain storm at Noon today to pray for families experiencing homelessness and for students who are homeless while attending public schools. Last year over 18,000 homeless students were enrolled in Oregon schools.
The morning began with a briefing for clergy and lay leaders about the issues involved with family and childhood homelessness. Nearly 60 people attended. The events today are in preparation for a state-wide summit on homelessness among families and children that is being scheduled for early June.
We began the morning with a welcome from David Leslie, executive director of Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon, and a prayer from Father Paul Schroeder, director of faith-based services for JOIN.
Dona Bolt, who directs the Education for Homeless Children and Youth Program at the Oregon Department of Education, opened the formal presentation by talking about ways that communities of faith can directly link up with schools serving homeless students. For example, she urged churches and other religious communities to offer mentoring programs and to help collect school supplies. I joined Dona during this part of the briefing and shared information related to funding issues and stressed the importance of education in the lives of homeless children.
Kevin Finney (Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon), Roberto Franco (Oregon Department of Housing and Community Services), Janet Byrd (Neighborhood Partnerships), and Lincoln County Commissioner Bill Hall talked to the group about policy and funding issues. Commissioner Hall noted, for example, that nearly 10% of students in his county are homeless.
Oregon's efforts to educate students who are homeless in public schools is entirely funded by federal dollars (along with some local funding and community contributions). No state funding is allocated in this area and the federal contribution will substantially decrease after President Obama's stimulus package expires.
Religious leaders in Oregon have been working with U.S. Senator Ron Wyden and U.S. Jeff Merkley to increase federal support. Both senators are now co-sponsoring legislation that would do just that.
While we work to increase the involvement of faith communities with public schools it is also likely we will go to the Legislature in 2011 with a request that the state fill any holes left by cuts in federal funding. There has been a 122% increase in the number of homeless students in less than a decade in Oregon and a dramatic climb in the poverty rate since 2001.
At the Noon prayer vigil, David Leslie offered an opening prayer and we shared in reading this litany (that was slightly adapted for our occasion). The Rev. David Akers, interim minister of Smyrna United Church of Christ, led the litany and The Rev. Gail McDougle, senior minster at Salem's First Congregational United Church of Christ, offered the benediction.