- FILE PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
- NO REGULAR ROOF : Hundreds of local schoolchildren are homeless. These boys at a shelter received donated backpacks filled with school supplies.
Hundreds of the children who will walk into local classrooms on the first day of school later this month are classified as homeless. In kindergartens and on up through high schools in San Luis Obispo County, at least 1,000 children and youths won’t have a regular roof over their heads at night, officials believe.
“We must not forget the impact the [economic] crisis is also having on our children and youth,” County Superintendent of Schools Julian Crocker wrote in a report titled “The Education of Homeless Students.”
The last official school count of children and youths who are classified as homeless took place in January. It showed a staggering 42 percent increase compared to the previous school year, for a total of nearly 1,000 students in 2008-2009. That represents about 2.5 percent of school children in the county. A similar increase this year—which officials say wouldn’t surprise them— would mean around 1,400, officials said.
Many come to school needing clothing and school supplies, according to Assistant Superintendent Kathy Hannemann of the Atascadero Unified School District.
“Their families simply cannot afford notebooks, pencils, pens, paper. I believe this year we’ll see even greater needs,” Hannemann said.
That’s not the only obstacle they face.
“These kids are challenged by getting to school on time, or at all, and having a place to study. They may have no place to shower. Especially for teens, when there are social issues, they don’t want to come to school without a shower and a change of clothes,” said John Elfers, homeless youth coordinator for the County Office of Education.
The official definition of homelessness doesn’t refer just to children and youths who are staying at shelters or living on the street. It also includes those who are staying in motels and campgrounds and cars, or doubled and tripled up with other families in an apartment, or staying with relatives because they have nowhere else to go.
“There can be a variety of living conditions that are unstable or uncertain, with little or no adult supervision for children,” Crocker wrote.
The largest numbers are in the younger grades. Last school year saw nearly 225 kindergartners and first-graders who didn’t have a home of their own. And recently the youngest children have been coming to kindergarten with fewer skills, less ready for schooling, according to Hannemann.
“That’s new for this area. It usually means the parents are in poverty. I’ve seen an increase in poverty for children entering kindergarten,” she added.
School officials are on the alert to spot students who are in homeless situations so they can offer help.
“Everyone has their eyes and ears open. Students don’t walk around with a sign saying, ‘I’m homeless.’ The biggest challenge is to identify homeless students, who may not know they qualify for services,” Elfers said.
Federal funding is available to help pay for transportation to and from school, and for free breakfast and lunch. Money has also been provided to local school districts through the McKinney-Vento Act, which provides money to shelter programs, to hire staff to work with families experiencing homelessness.
The community is rallying around to help as well. A local nonprofit group, the Assistance League, runs Operation School Bell, a program that provides school clothes to students in need. Reflecting the increase in homelessness, this year Operation School Bell has been expanded to provide clothes for junior-high students in addition to those in younger grades.
Backpacks stuffed with school supplies have been donated by local businesses and community volunteers. Costco also donated backpacks that the Food Bank of SLO County will fill with nutritious nonperishable food for the weekend, to help families feed their children when there’s no school.
Schools can’t provide homes for students and their families who don’t have them, but they can help provide services.
“We’ve all got to work together,” said Hannemann.
Contributor Kathy Johnston can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.