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This is Part Two in a series on the hidden homeless families of San Diego’s South Bay. Read Part One here.
Mirinda Quillopo keeps baby wipes in her office, just in case students don’t have a place to shower. Veronica Medina stocks her shelves with backpacks and shoes. Molly Ravenscroft has a bag of clothes in her car at any given time.
They all work for public school districts in the South Bay of San Diego County. Their jobs are to ensure that even the most impoverished students have a chance at an education by helping them meet their most basic needs.
These women play a part in what has become a common role for public schools in poorer neighborhoods. Schools in the South Bay are now providing students with far more than an education – they’ve become a hub for students and their families to find everything from a place to shower to help with school enrollment to assistance applying for public benefits.
Schools use different criteria to define homelessness than organizations that do official counts of homeless populations. For a child to be homeless in the eyes of the Department of Education, they need to “lack a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence.”
That means if a child is couch-surfing, or if they and their family are living in a motel, trailer park, campground, substandard or overcrowded living situation or in an emergency or homeless shelter – schools consider them homeless.
“If a family comes in and says, ‘We’re living with grandma for a month and then with my brother for a month – that’s homeless,” said Pamela Reichert-Montiel, director of student support and accountability at South Bay Union School District. “You don’t have to be living in a car.”
Other government agencies, like the Department of Housing and Urban Development, define homelessness much more narrowly: A person counts as homeless if he or she is living in a place not meant for human habitation, or in an emergency shelter or in transitional housing.
The disconnect between how schools and other government agencies define homelessness means many families considered homeless by a school district don’t qualify to access government services for homeless families.
Ravenscroft, a family services program coordinator at Sweetwater High School District, asks families questions like, “Do you have a key to the place you’re staying? How many people are staying in the home? Do you stay in the same place every night?” to gather how stable a family’s living situation is.
Sweetwater High School District has about 650 students in unstable living situations. Roughly 20 percent – or 1,473 – of students in South Bay Union are classified as homeless. The majority are living in arrangements where multiple families pack into a dwelling.
San Ysidro School District has the largest homeless student population in the county – roughly a third of its students are considered homeless. That’s about 1,500 students. At one elementary school in the district, more than 40 percent of students live in an unstable housing situation.
Public schools nationwide reported 1.2 million homeless children and youth in the 2014-2015 school year. That is a 34 percent increase since the recession ended in the summer of 2009. Homelessness among unaccompanied homeless youth increased by 21 percent over the past three years – a trend mirrored in San Diego, where the last homeless census in January – despite its shortcoming in tracking these populations – found a spike in homeless youth of 39 percent.
Schools are the primary public entity tracking these families. Because education is compulsory, schools come in contact with children and families more than any nonprofit or government entity. Now, they’re going beyond educating students and caring for entire families when a child loses stable housing.
“They’re the only universal institution,” said Barbara Duffield, head of School House Connections, a Washington D.C.-based organization that advocates for laws and policies to support homeless students and their families. “They’re the only place where kids experiencing homelessness have the right to be. They don’t have a right to shelter, they don’t have a right to housing, but they have a right to the classroom.”
Duffield said safety concerns, fear of children being taken away by Child Protective Services (though CPS won’t take children away if a parent is poor or homeless as long as they are caring for the child) and immigration concerns can all be reasons why families seek out unconventional and sometimes unsafe situations – like living in a junkyard – to avoid being on the street.
“They want to stay under the radar from authorities,” Duffield said. “The very nature of family and youth homelessness is different and isn’t going to be as visible.”
For Natalia Mele, a student who was living without her parents in high school, Ravenscroft would make a seemingly small gesture. When Ravenscroft and Mele would talk, Ravenscroft would always ask how Mele was doing. At the time, she was the only adult in Mele’s life who ever did that.
Mele’s mother left her when she was in seventh grade, and Mele had been living with a friend, Stephanie Juarez. Juarez’s family struggled to find stable housing – the girls can list at least 10 different addresses where they lived at some point in high school.
Mele met Ravenscroft her senior year of high school. Mele had been absent a lot, and when school administrators started asking questions, they realized she was in an unstable living situation.
Ravenscroft remembers the time she took Mele to an event at Southwestern College, where Mele, 20, now studies.
That day, Mele toured the campus and went to informational sessions.
During one event, Ravenscroft said she was sitting next to Mele when “she turned to me and said, ‘Thank you for bringing me,’ and I just felt this relief, like, ‘OK, she’s going to be fine.’”
Ravenscroft’s days in her role are always different, but they often entail meeting with homeless students to ensure their needs are met. She’s constantly on the phone and e-mailing with parents, school staff and local service providers.
One middle school student who met with Ravenscroft asked her to check in on the student’s mother because she was worried about the stress her mom felt, trying to find a job and a home.
Another mom reached out to Ravenscroft concerned by what should have been good news – she had gotten a job. But she was worried she’d lose it because she didn’t have a place to shower.
The money schools have available to help homeless families is limited.
California schools with larger populations of low-income and disadvantaged students can use Title I or McKinney-Vento federal funds, intended for disadvantaged populations, or state “Supplemental and Concentration” funds from the Local Control Funding Formula, but most of those pots of money aren’t intended solely for homeless students and their families and also go toward other underserved populations, like English-learners.
President Donald Trump’s budget proposal has school administrators at South Bay schools concerned because it cuts many funds that allow them to provide meals to their students. Many homeless students eat nearly all of their meals at school.
School districts with high numbers of homeless and impoverished families have homeless liaisons, student services, counselors, volunteer coordinators and others who help provide everything from student meals to shoes and clothes to toothpaste and showers. Some schools offer English classes. Most of the schools work with service providers to help connect them with other resources, like help seeking jobs or housing and have created hubs in each district where families can go to access these resources.
AUDIO: Sonia Tanner is a student program facilitator at Sweetwater Union High School District who works with homeless students. Listen to her describe her job and what she sees with the families she works with.
Some family resource centers, like those in South Bay Union School District, are funded entirely through Title I funds from the Department of Education, limiting assistance to families who have students enrolled at the school.
Other school districts have taken things a step further. Sweetwater School District opens its family resource centers to the entire community – it provides the space and the two centers are primarily staffed by nonprofit employees. The district also strategically placed centers where there were vacuums in community access to social services.
A grant funded through the Department of Education allowed Castle Park Middle School to become a hub of social services where anyone in the neighborhood – whether they have children in the district or not – can come for classes, clothes, food and to apply for benefits, like CalWorks or Medicaid. The grant is managed by South Bay Community Services, a nonprofit in South County that works with homeless individuals and low-income families.
“The reality is education affects everything. So if we’re ever going to make long-lasting change, the focus should be through education,” said Mauricio Torre, who works on the grant project for South Bay Community Services. “If a child has food insecurities or they don’t have housing or the parents are working two jobs and they don’t have the ability to spend quality time with their kids doing homework, they’re not going to come to school every day ready to learn.”
There have been few studies on the link between education and homelessness, but one 1999 study by the National Survey of Homeless Assistance Providers and Clients found that 21 percent of homeless adults surveyed nationally said their first period of homelessness predated their 18th birthday. In San Diego’s 2017 annual homeless census, one in every 10 people on the street experienced their first instance of homeless before they turned 18.
Medina, the homeless student liaison in the San Ysidro Elementary School District, herself experienced homelessness growing up, shuffling between family members’ homes and living in motels with her mother. After failing ninth grade, in large part because of the instability and many school absences, Medina had to finish high school through a learning center – an alternative education route – provided through the San Ysidro Elementary School District.
“You know, I share my story with my students,” Medina said. “I’m not ashamed of how I was raised, and I was blessed not to fall into the same footsteps as my parents. Sometimes a lot of our students need that support because they end up following the same cycle, so you need to catch them early and explain to them that they need to go to school.”
In many ways, schools are uniquely positioned to see and help homeless families and their children, but there are some major challenges. For one, schools can’t provide housing.
“Schools can’t do everything nor should they be expected to do everything,” said Duffield.
In other parts of California, there have been more strategic efforts to identify homeless families within school districts and house them.
In San Francisco, the nonprofit Hamilton Housing Solutions has a partnership with San Francisco Unified School District to identify and help families who are homeless or facing eviction. When a counselor, social worker, nurse or other school employee learn a family is about to become homeless or is newly homeless, Hamilton has a “rapid response team” that goes to the school to meet with the family, assess their needs and enroll them in one of its rapid re-housing programs.
For advocates like Duffield, this is a step in the right direction, but the first thing that had to happen for such a partnership to occur? The city, in addition to school districts, had to acknowledge that all these families were homeless.