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‘Tidal wave’ of homeless students hits schools

School districts across U.S.
are struggling to pay for needs of uprooted
kids. These stories of desperate families will
break your heart.

Why isn't the elimination of homelessness a
concern of our corporate politicos?

By Kari Huus

OXNARD, Calif. - Nine-year-old Daniel Valdez is
absorbed in âThe Swiss Family Robinson,â the
fictional story of a family shipwrecked on a
tropical island. In real life, he and his
family also are marooned, but there is little
romance in their tale of survival in this
seaside town northwest of Los Angeles.

Daniel, his mother and five brothers, ages 1 to
17, live in a garage without heat or running
water in a modest, low-lying neighborhood that
sits between celebrity-owned mansions in the
hills and the Pacific Ocean. Each morning, they
arise at 6:30, get dressed and then leave
quietly; they return only after dark â a
routine born out of the fear that detection
could mean the loss of even this humble

Daniel and his brothers have been sleeping in
the garage for more than a year â members of
what school officials and youth advocates say
is a rapidly growing legion of homeless youth.

While the problem may be worse in economically
stricken regions like Southern California,
where foreclosures and job losses are taking a
harsh toll on families, anecdotal evidence
suggests it is a growing issue nationally and
one with serious ramifications for both a
future generation and the overburdened public
school system.

Research shows that the turmoil of homelessness
often hinders childrenâs ability to socialize
and learn. Many are plagued by hunger,
exhaustion, abuse and insecurity. They have a
hard time performing at grade level and are
about 50 percent less likely to graduate from
high school than their peers.

âHomeless children are confronted daily by
extremely stressful and traumatic experiences
that have profound effects on their cognitive
development and ability to learn,â said Ellen
Bassuk, a Harvard Medical School psychiatry
professor and president of the nonprofit
National Center on Family Homelessness. âThey
tend to have high rates of developmental
delays, learning difficulties and emotional
problems as a product of precarious living
situations and extreme poverty.â

Mary Aguilar, Danielâs mother, said she
believes the familyâs tenuous existence is
largely responsible for her son's struggles
with his third-grade lessons.

âHeâs depressed a lot,â she said of Daniel,
whom she says has been the most affected of her
sons by the loss of their home. âHe does his
work for class, but very slowly, like heâs
thinking. He worries a lot about living like

Under federal law, schools are charged with
keeping homeless students like Daniel from
falling behind their peers academically. This
can mean providing a wide range of services,
including transportation, free lunches,
immunizations and referrals to family services.

But with insufficient federal funding and
budgets that are severely strained, many
schools are struggling to meet the rising need.

âIt's like a tidal waveâ
In Vista, Calif., about 35 miles north of San
Diego, the population of homeless kids in the
local school district reached 2,542 this year â
about 9 percent of the student body and nearly
10 times the number just two years ago, said
Rebecca Benner, the districtâs homeless

âItâs like a tidal wave this school year,â she

Bennerâs role as homeless liaison â only part
of her job providing student services â is now
full time, as she scrambles to register
homeless students for free lunches, arrange for
transportation, provide P.E. uniforms, line up
counseling and cover SAT fees.

âIt was supposed to be one small piece of my
day,â she said. â⦠Now itâs almost
insurmountable to get to the bottom of the
phone messages.â

Hard-to-get numbers
The number of homeless people in the U.S. is
the subject of much debate and disagreement. An
annual one-night count, performed by social
service organizations and volunteers who then
report to the federal Department of Housing and
Urban Development, attempts to tally the number
of people living on the street, in cars or
makeshift tents and in emergency shelters. The
most recent survey â conducted in January 2008,
before the full brunt of the recession hit â
tallied 759,101 homeless Americans. Roughly 40
percent of them â or about 300,000 â were
families with minor children, according to the

Advocates for the homeless say a more reliable
picture of what is taking place comes through a
separate count conducted in public schools, in
which the definition of âhomelessâ is broader.

Under the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance
Act, âhomelessâ includes not just children who
live on the streets, but âany individual who
lacks a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime
residence.â In addition to those living in
shelters or cars or sleeping on the street,
that figure includes children whose families
are doubled up with other families or living in
trailers due to economic hardship, those who
live in substandard housing and kids awaiting
foster care placement.

In 2007-2008 â the last school year for which
data is available â the nationâs 14,000 public
school districts counted more than 780,000
homeless students, a 15 percent increase from
the previous year.

âI think that was the beginning of seeing the
foreclosure crisis impact,â said Barbara
Duffield, policy director of the National
Association for the Education of Homeless
Children and Youth.

In a voluntary survey late last year by the
association and another nonprofit, First Focus,
330 school districts reported that the number
of homeless students appears to be far higher,
said Duffield, co-author of a report on the
survey published in December. She estimated
that the number of homeless students is now
close to 1 million â exceeding numbers in the
period right after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

âItâs this year, 2008-2009, that the rug was
pulled out from under many school districts,â
she said.

Stimulus package to boost funding
Federal funding for schools to provide services
for homeless kids is allocated through
McKinney-Vento, a 1987 law that was bolstered
by the No Child Left Behind legislation of

âUnder McKinney-Vento, every district is
required to have a liaison with the
responsibility to identify homeless kids,â said
Duffield. In addition to the staff, the school
districts are responsible for providing a
number of services, which can include
everything from meals and clothing to athletic
uniforms and educational field trips. One of
the biggest costs in serving homeless kids is
providing transportation to and from school,
required even if the kids move out of the
immediate area, she said.

The law included funding, but school districts
must apply for grants to tap into it. Duffield
estimated that only about 6 percent of the
nationâs school districts received money
through McKinney-Vento last year, though many
more applied.

This year, schools were slated to receive $64
million to aid homeless students under the act.
The newly passed federal stimulus package will
add $70 million more in funding.

That will be a big help, Duffield said, while
maintaining that the program âwas woefully
underfundedâ even before the economic crisis
pushed more people over the brink.

Duffield is now combing through the rest of the
$787 billion economic stimulus package to see
if funding in other categories might be used to
help homeless students. For instance, the
stimulus package includes $79 billion for a
âState Fiscal Stabilization Fundâ â about 80
percent of which is earmarked for K-12
education and is intended to offset state cuts
in education funding.

The stimulus also adds $13 billion for Title I,
the biggest federally funded education program,
for schools that have large concentrations of
needy students. Under some interpretations,
these funds cannot be used to pay for
transportation or liaisons for homeless

â(But) if the district identifies
transportation, liaisons, social workers, gas
cards, backpacks or shoes, they ought to be
able to use their funds for that, because those
are literally some of the needs,â Duffield
said. âWeâre looking for flexibility.â

Responses to the survey of school districts
illustrate the variety of challenges that come
with providing for homeless kids.

The Wisconsin Rapids Public School District,
which serves 5,700 students in the stateâs
rural heart, counted 160 homeless students, a
50 percent increase over two years ago.

"One of the biggest challenges is
transportation,â Heather Lisitza, the school
districtâs homeless liaison, was quoted as
saying in the report. âOur city has only one
taxi cab service and no public bus system.
Another challenge (is)⦠we ⦠have long, cold
winters, all students need proper outerwear to
go outside â snow boots, hat, mittens, snow
pants and a winter jacket that has a working
zipper or buttons on it. This expense adds up
quickly and it is hard to provide to the
increasing number of homeless students.â

More families pushed over the edge
School districts also say they are seeing more
students from middle-class, working-class and
working-poor families being pushed into

Among them are Martin and Luz de la Rosa, who
arrived one recent afternoon at the Ventura
County (Calif.) Community Action Center, a
facility that primarily serves chronically
homeless men, for an appointment with a social

The de la Rosas explained that they were
seeking government assistance for the first
time because they and their eight children â
ages 3 to 16 â were just days from being
evicted from their apartment.

Clutching a Bible, Luz de la Rosa said she lost
her job at a small jewelry store as the
recession kicked in. Then in November, her
husband was laid off from the small Oxnard
machine shop where he had been earning $19 an

Martin said that left him with two untenable
choices â continuing to collect unemployment
benefits of $1,600 a month or taking a job at
minimum wage, neither of which would cover rent
for a home big enough for his family. The de la
Rosas said they wouldnât mind moving into a
two-bedroom apartment, which is all they can
afford here, but landlords wonât allow that
many occupants.

Social worker Delores Suarez said she would
like to place them somewhere together, but at
the moment, there is simply not enough
emergency housing available.

âThey are probably going to end up split up
among relativesâ and attending different
schools, she said.

Other homeless parents said that some schools
are either unaware of their obligations to help
or arenât eager to provide the required
services because of budget constraints.

Next in Suarezâs appointment book was a 35-
year-old woman named Sylvia, who declined to
provide her last name. She said that after a
divorce three years ago, she lost her home to
foreclosure and then couldnât keep up with rent
when she was laid off from her job at a car
parts factory. She and her three kids then
moved in with a friend.

âWhen the school found out we had moved (away
from the neighborhood) ⦠they wanted to remove
the kids from school,â she said. Only after she
met with district officials were they allowed
to continue to attend, she said.

Identifying the homeless
Compounding the problem of getting school
districts to live up to their responsibilities
is the fact that many homeless families are
unwilling to acknowledge their living situation
and therefore donât receive services that could
help them, said Susan Eberhart, principal of
the Sheridan Way Elementary School in Ventura.

âPeople have to identify themselves as homeless
(in order to get help), but that frequently
doesnât happen,â she said.

Eberhart said she and her staff are accustomed
to kids who are struggling at home â nearly all
of the schoolâs 514 K-5 students are poor
enough to qualify for free breakfast and lunch.
Although 86 of them were identified as homeless
in the last survey, she guesses that, based on
telltale signs, at least 100 meet the criteria.

âThey have no place to keep stuff, so their
backpacks are very full. Their clothes are not
clean. They havenât had a haircut, havenât seen
a dentist,â she said. â⦠Maybe a kid has asthma
and is out of meds.â

Eberhart said she is swamped by the scope of
the problem. She no longer has the assistance
of a county social worker who used to handle
much of the load â a budget cut caused the
county to eliminate that resource. Now she is
urging people to ask for help â and prodding
community organizations to help fill the gaps
as she identifies them.

âSome families are sort of floating, she said.
âIf we can get them to land, we can provide â¦

While the stigma of homelessness prevents some
from acknowledging their plight, others have
more immediate concerns, said Beth McCullough,
homeless liaison for the Adrian Public Schools
in economically battered southeast Michigan.

Families with children living in emergency
shelters, pop-up campers, cars and tents can be
charged with neglect by Child Protective
Services workers, and there have been instances
where parents have lost custody, she said.

Fearing the loss of their kids, she said,
"parents call in and say their kid won't be in
school because they are going to Disneyland for
a week, when the fact is that (they) donât have
a way to get them to school. Or parents will
tell kids to lie about where they live."

Homework in pandemonium
For Mary Aguilar, the Oxnard woman living with
her kids in the garage â which she rents for
$150 a month from a cousin â the assistance her
kids might receive at school is not worth the
risk that other children will ridicule them if
their living arrangement becomes known.

So she tries to help them stay on track, though
itâs a daily struggle. Daniel recently missed
several days of school because of yet another
cold â a common ailment, his mother said,
because the garage has been especially cold
this winter. Normally she walks three of her
sons to their elementary school, but some days
heavy rains have kept them home.

For now, the family has few prospects for
better housing. The family became homeless
after Aguilar's boyfriend, father to the two
youngest boys, left about a year and a half
ago, and Aguilar could not pay rent. When an
opportunity came to sign up for emergency
housing five months ago, she lined up at the
courthouse before dawn. For that, she got her
name on a waiting list of about two years.

She has applied for jobs in stores and fast-
food restaurants and come up empty-handed. She
is exploring a work rehab program offered by
the state. Meantime, the family gets by on
about $1,300 a month in food stamps and cash
aid â but no child support from the boysâ

For now, the routine remains the same. After
school, Aguilar and the six boys go to her
motherâs apartment, where her brother and
sister also live. Aguilarâs family canât stay
overnight â that would put the others at risk
of eviction â but it is a place to eat and for
the boys to study.

But Danielâs 11-year-old brother, Isaac, said
heâs sometimes too distracted by the
pandemonium of 10 people and the television to
do his homework.

âThen he tries to do it when we get back to the
garage, but the light keeps everyone awake,â
said Aguilar.

Isaac has fallen behind a grade, and Aguilarâs
eldest son, 17-year-old Joshua, is attending a
remedial program for drop-outs. Aguilar is
pleased that Daniel has so far been able to
keep up with his grade level.

Unaware of the tough odds he faces, Daniel says
he plans to finish high school. Like other boys
his age, he still has big dreams â of becoming
a basketball star and working at something
important someday.

But first and foremost, he dreams of âa very
beautiful house ⦠with a room of my own.â The
walls would be decorated, he said, âwith
posters, and pictures that I have drawn, and
tests that I did in school.â

— Kari Huus





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