The announcement today from the Oregon Department of Education that the number of children experiencing homelessness in our public schools has risen another 5.5% to a record 19,040 is an indication of a growing moral crisis in our state. "The percentage of homeless students in Oregon has increased 134 percent since the state began counting seven years ago," according to state officials. The numbers released today are for the 2009-2010 school year. We can fairly assume school districts are seeing even more children who are homeless as classes resume this month.
Earlier this year I worked with Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon to convene the first Interfaith Summit on Homeless Children, Families and Youth to discuss ways that the faith community can work with local school districts to provide support for students who are homeless and their families.
As President Obama has said, a good public education is a good anti-poverty strategy. Oregon, unfortunately, does not have a comprehensive anti-poverty strategy and neither do local jurisdictions (or the federal government, for that matter). Our public schools are falling behind. While the state of Oregon and some communities - such as Portland and Multnomah County - have "Ten Year Plans to End Homelessness" these plans are doomed to failure because they do not address the root causes of poverty in Oregon.
As the U.S. Census Bureau reported this past week, poverty is surging in America. The Rev. Dr. Michael Kinnamon, General Secretary of the National Council of Churches USA, said in response to those numbers: "There is little indication that our political leaders—regardless of political party--are taking the need to address poverty with fervor. Most recently, the campaign rhetoric between Republicans and Democrats has focused on tax cuts for the Middle Class and not on helping lift those in poverty out of their plight. Our political leaders’ calculated neglect of the poor while courting the votes of the comfortable offends the creator of the universe." Without President Obama's stimulus plan we'd be in even worse shape. But more needs to be done.
To start with, the president and Oregon's Congressional delegation need to endorse the goals and proposals outlined in the Half In Ten Campaign - the national effort to reduce poverty in America by 50% that has been put forth by the Justice and Witness Ministries of the United Church of Christ and the Center for American Progress, among others. The plan calls for expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit (what Ronald Reagan once called the best anti-poverty tool we have) and the Child Tax Credit. Congress must also act quickly to expand TANF benefits nationwide to support subsidized jobs and extend employment insurance.
We need both candidates for governor to outline comprehensive strategies for reducing poverty in Oregon. The candidates for Metro president need to recognize that poverty isn't a Portland issue but a regional one and so they need to explain how they would use their offices to reduce poverty and homelessness. The same is true with every state House member, state Senate member, every mayor, every city council member, every county executive, and every county commissioner. In Oregon, we need common sense state-wide tax reform (including kicker reform and a rainy-day fund) that makes funding available for schools and we need local efforts, such as a housing levy in the Metro area, to build housing people making minimum the wage can afford. You shouldn't work, pay taxes and be homeless.
To those who help children and the poor Jesus promises blessings saying:
“Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”
But he also warns:
“You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.” Then they also will answer, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?” Then he will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.’" (Matthew 25 NRSV).
The preacher in me has to make this clear: we are creating our own kind of hell right here in Oregon when we allow over 19,000 kids to experience homelessness during the course of a school year. No one should be forced to live a third world life in a first world country. Advocates have been pleading with politicians and the public for well over a decade to address the growing crisis of childhood and family homelessness. How many more babies need to be born in shelters, spend their first days sleeping on gym floors, and leave the playground at the end of the school day in grade school to watch their friends go home while they sleep another night with their family in a car before we say enough is enough and respond to the moral and spiritual crisis before us?