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Submitted Photo / Virginia Shank RaiTwann “Ray” Gaston, Warren City Schools’ new family housing navigator, meets with Jill Merolla, district director of public relations and empowerment development/homeless association, to discuss numbers and issues related to homelessness in the school district .

WARREN – Just a few weeks in his new position at Warren City School District, RaiTwann “Beam” Gaston has met with several families and spent countless hours campaigning for their safety and stability.

Simply put, Gaston’s primary goal is to provide a home for families in the Warren City School District facing homelessness.

“I think there’s a lot of misconceptions out there about homelessness.” said Gaston. “Actually, it can happen to anyone at any time. Entire families can lose their homes and be displaced, and the impact of this can be long-lasting and far-reaching. The impact it can have on youth can be devastating.”

Gaston began his new position in the district on February 28 through a partnership with Warren-based Coleman Health Services. Coleman created the position of family housing navigator several years ago. During that year, the district was able to work with the Department of Social Services to hire Gaston as a full-time family housing navigator assigned exclusively to Warren schools. So far this is a rarity in Ohio.

The number of homeless students has increased steadily each year, from 179 in 2018-19 to 196 in 2019-20 and 206 in the 2020-21 school year. As of Friday, Warren has identified 159 youth and children in the school district as homeless for the 2021-22 school year.

Last year in Ohio, according to the Ohio Department of Education, there were 23,885 students affected by homelessness.

“Homelessness goes beyond the stereotype of someone living in their car or on the street,” Jill Merolla, district director of public relations and grant development/homeless association, explained. “Some families could be displaced and now live with family or friends in a twin or multi-family situation in a single family home, causing additional stress and difficulties for all involved. It can be caused by losing a job, illness or a house fire. Whatever the circumstances, the family is left without their own home.”

The McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act (MVHAA), originally passed in 1987, defines “Homeless Children and Young People” than persons who lack a fixed, regular and reasonable overnight stay. Federal legislation was reauthorized by the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) in 2015, and changes came into effect in 2016.

McKinney-Vento requires that each school district have a homeless liaison who works with families, community agencies and partners to best serve students affected by homelessness. Among other duties, the liaison is tasked with ensuring that homeless students are identified and immediately enrolled in the school with a full and equal chance of success.

Warren was able to create the district’s family housing navigator post through funding from the federal American Rescue Plan (ARP). Last year, the US Department of Education provided an unprecedented $800 million “to support the urgent needs of homeless children and youth.” Of that, $799 million was earmarked for State Education Services (SEAs) to address the immediate needs of students affected by homelessness.

The district applied for grants and secured $183,575 to pay for the post and various expenses related to helping the homeless. The position will be funded for the next two years. At that time, the district will review the situation and evaluate potential funding streams to continue providing service to families.

Meanwhile, Gaston’s reach extends beyond handing his clients the keys to a new home. He considers all requirements to find an appropriate, secure fit to ensure success and longevity. For example, he has helped obtain birth certificates; completing housing forms and applications; research and review of operating costs; and preparation of budgets. He also helps those who are newly housed with resources so they can maintain their homes.

Raised in the city and attending Warren City Schools, Gaston said he was blessed to be able to discover the beauty of the city.

“We have so many great things in Warren to be proud of,” he said.

A big benefit is the Warren City School District, he added.

“When I was younger I had a great experience of developing and learning during my school days due to the resources and hard work of the administration in the district. They had a huge impact on my future and were a key reason why I accepted this position. I wanted the opportunity to give back to the community and share my connections with people in need. What better way than to work closely with the administration that changed your life for the better and help the future generation to prosper.”

Gaston was born in Youngstown but soon moved to Warren. He then attended Hiram College, where he played basketball, and is currently finishing his bachelor’s degree.

Part of his work is not only working directly with families affected by homelessness, but also with those at risk of homelessness by providing direct relief planning and overall assessment of family needs. These needs may include shelter, education, food, clothing and mental health care, employment, life skills management, and the provision of links to community resources.

Gaston said one of his main goals is to make sure families know resources and help are available for them.

“I remember being a student and needing help with things, be it eating or dressing. I was blessed enough to have a mom who made sure I didn’t want anything because she used the community resources available to her and our family. If there is one thing I want to accomplish in this position, it is to help families be aware of the resources and programs they are entitled to support.” he said.

“This position is special to me because I can give back directly to the community and work to uplift and support the next generation of the Warren community. There is nothing quite like watching someone else become successful because you helped them in their need.”

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