AUBURN — City officials are creating a program that would give rental assistance to homeless families with school-aged children who are attending Auburn schools. 

The Staying Home Rental Assistance Program, crafted by Auburn’s economic and community development staff, would use $90,000 in city funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development toward security deposits, monthly rental subsidies and utility deposits for qualifying families.

Officials said the goal of the program is to address the high rate of mobility in Auburn schools, meaning students are coming and going at rates that can be harmful to classrooms. 

At a City Council workshop Monday, councilors debated the details of the pilot program and whether to focus the funds on one school or use a broad approach. 

Michelle McClellan, the Auburn assistant superintendent who is also designated the department’s homeless liaison officer, said there were about 90 students eligible for services last year under the McKinney-Vento Act, which addresses a school’s obligation to provide continuous services for students who are determined to be homeless.

But, she said, not all of those 90 students’ families would be eligible for the new program. 

Community Development Manager Yvette Bouttenot, as well as McClellan, recommended the program focus on all schools in grades K-8. They said there is a high rate of student mobility at a number of schools. 

At a previous workshop, Bouttenot said once the program is rolling, Auburn school officials will identify a family in need and make a referral.

Among the goals of the program cited in the council memo are: “A child remains in the same school for the school year while (his/her) family is receiving benefits or (the) program committee meets to review the success of the child remaining in (the) same school, and the family has participated in a self-sufficiency program such as Bridges Out of Poverty.” 

“It’s an issue that faces neighborhoods across each of our schools,” McClellan told the council. 

She added that the rental assistance program could be a “huge piece” of services that the department could provide families. 

Mayor Jonathan LaBonte asked how much the school department currently spends on the 90 families that qualify for assistance. McClellan said in total about $160,000, with about $82,000 in direct costs to Auburn. The expenses include transportation, and items like backpacks and food. 

LaBonte questioned whether the program would be an effective way to address the mobility issue, which he said was previously targeted by the council as a goal. 

McClellan said the direct rental assistance would work “to address educational disruptions,” preemptively address the high mobility rate and allow continuity across the department.

Councilor Grady Burns asked his fellow councilors to defer to the recommendations of city staff and “give this a year.”

Councilor David Young said the goal of the program is to “have the student finish out the school year in the school they started in.”

“If you really want to put out the fire, it’s a way to start,” he said. 

Two weeks ago, LaBonte told staff that the program should include a “full scope of support,” connecting families with job skills and financial management programs if needed. 

According to the program details, “Families will receive rental subsidies while they work to correct the circumstances that created the homelessness. They will be encouraged to participate in programs that will enable them to transition out of poverty.”

To be eligible, a family must first be determined to be homeless or near homeless by the school department, which will then refer them to the Auburn Housing Authority.

The level of assistance will be determined by each family’s current financial situation, along with a number of other qualifying factors.

The City Council will most likely vote on the program during its next meeting in October.

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