Oregon’s population of students who are homeless has increased by 14 percent since the 2008-2009 school year. Across the state, greater numbers of students are in need of supportive services. Medford, Oregon has the second highest ratio of homeless students in the state. It also has the Maslow Project, a highly successful, award-winning model of service delivery and outreach for homeless students and their families. Mary Ferrell, the project’s founder, shares how they are trying to buffer the impact of the economic downturn on children and youth experiencing homelessness.
“Our kids deserve the chance to be all that they hope to be. Our system should not be one more barrier. If we can help them navigate this world, they become heroes,” says Mary Ferrell, Executive Director and Founder of The Maslow Project in Medford, Oregon.
Across Oregon, the number of students who are homeless has increased by 14 percent since the 2008-2009 school year, according to the state’s Department of Education. Over 18,000 students are homeless in Oregon. Medford, the largest city in Southern Oregon, has the second highest ratio of homeless to housed students in the state.
Medford is also home to the Maslow Project, a highly successful system of service delivery and outreach for students and their families who are experiencing homelessness. The Project was honored as an outstanding school-based program by the National Association for Education of Homeless Children and Youth in 2008.
Before she founded the Maslow Project, Mary was the school district’s McKinney-Vento liaison, a federally funded position. “The fragmentation of the system made it very hard for one individual to provide services to kids. The kids were confused and it was not effective.” In response, Mary sought out a partnership with a local community organization, Kids Unlimited.
Kids Unlimited provides enrichment activities for disadvantaged youth. It was a good fit. Since that first partnership, the Maslow Project has initiated many others to help students who are homeless access multiple services in one place. “We try to stay nimble enough to adapt our services to keep up with the evolving needs of our kids,” says Mary. They receive a blend of federal, state, and local funding. In the first year they served sixty children and youth. By the third year they served over two thousand, ages 0 to 22.
The Maslow Project is housed in a community center – a critical component of their success. The center does not carry the stigma of being a place only for kids who are homeless. “Kids just want to be normal and don’t want to be identified as homeless. If kids feel comfortable, they will access services,” explains Mary.
The Maslow Project works hard to address the stigma associated with being homeless. In addition to partnering with a youth friendly organization, they pay close attention to kids’ clothing needs. “We know that giving a voucher for a thrift shop can be hard for kids. Helping to provide modern and relevant clothing goes a long way to assist young people with building positive peer relationships.” The Maslow Project has partnered with Jessica’s Closet, a clothes closet with its own powerful story.
The Maslow Project is tracking their successes. In the past year, over 90 percent of students served demonstrated significant improvement in basic stability, school attendance, school performance, and peer and family relationships. “What matters to me,” explains Mary, “is that we had twenty-nine homeless seniors that we worked with this past year. Twenty-seven out of twenty-nine graduated, and nineteen are enrolled and attending college now.”
With the current economic downturn, the Maslow Project is seeing an increasing number of families who are homeless for the first time. Many are families suffering job losses, or the loss of a home to foreclosure. Newly homeless families are unsure of how to access services and are uncomfortable seeking help. The Maslow Project has responded by being more flexible with service delivery.
Unaccompanied teens are facing greater challenges as a result of the downturn. “Now we are seeing adults with professional backgrounds competing for the jobs traditionally held by teens. It is harder to connect our kids with employment opportunities.” Some kids are pushed to extremes and seek shelter. “We are seeing kids who have broken into their family’s foreclosed homes. They are staying there without heat or furniture. Kids are finding ways to stay connected to their community.”
The Maslow Project team conducts outreach at shopping malls and other places where young people typically hang out as a way to make their services more available to youth who may not know about them.
Of the over one thousand homeless youth the program is serving, two hundred are unaccompanied by adults. Mary says that the main reason these youth are leaving home is because of family dysfunction and conflict. The Maslow Project has partnered with Mediation Works to provide access to counselors trained in mediating conflicts. Counselors visit families and youth in distress to facilitate successful communication, help find suitable housing for the youth, or to mediate an agreement for re-uniting the youth and family.
Mary hopes other communities will learn from the experiences of the Maslow Project. “I hope all communities will think about the effectiveness of service delivery to students who are homeless. It is our responsibility to improve the system.”