For the kids
Funding to buoy programs for local homeless children dependent on upcoming City Council decision
After Sarah leaves the Torres Community Shelter every morning at 7:30, she gets a lot of exercise pushing her 4-month-old son in his stroller, searching for a place to call home.
She tries not to get discouraged when all she finds are places that are too expensive for her blended family, which includes her boyfriend and their four other children. She often ends up at Community Park on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Parkway. Then it’s back to the shelter at 4:30 p.m., where she stays in a family room with a baby bath, crib and swing, privacy curtain and two bunk beds.
“I’m glad he’s too young to know what’s going on,” she told the CN&R as her son sucked on her thumb and looked around a Torres Shelter conference room with wide blue eyes.
Sarah, who asked to remain anonymous, misses her other children. Her 8- and 9-year-old are living with family members. They stayed at the Torres Shelter with her for a bit, but “it was very hard for them.”
They faced challenges every day, from getting to and from school to being able to focus enough to do their homework.
“They had a tough time. They wanted a home.”
Sarah’s family situation isn’t uncommon. There were at least 553 homeless children enrolled in the Chico Unified School District last school year, and 1,382 countywide, according to data from the Butte County Office of Education. CUSD alone serves 12,201 students at 21 campuses, meaning a minimum of 4.5 percent of its population is homeless. According to kidsdata.org, the state average is 4.4 percent.
The data reflects an increase since the 2015-16 academic year, when there were 515 homeless students reported in Chico, and 1,333 countywide.
CUSD provides case managers at every school site, transportation assistance, free meals and immediate enrollment for homeless children, but there’s an interest in doing more. That’s why the district has been paying attention to the city’s conversation about declaring a shelter crisis. If the City Council does so, CUSD would be able to apply for funding to help more homeless students. (There could be $4.9 million available for service providers countywide.)
Meagan Meloy, director of BCOE School Ties & Prevention Services, said she suspects the data is a “massive undercount” for many reasons: individual school reporting varies year to year based on current employees (what they notice/have time for); data collection methods are inconsistent; and there are school culture and societal stigmas.
Meloy has worked for the department—which provides mentoring, tutoring, school supplies and other assistance for homeless and foster youth—for 15 years. She said the state housing crisis and the county’s high poverty rate have caused more and more families to become homeless, even if the full scope of the problem isn’t represented in the data.
“We’ve got almost 1,500 students in our county who don’t know where they’re going to sleep from night to night,” she said, “… and they’re showing up at school every day. That shows so much resilience and perseverance.”
Like Sarah’s two older kids, many homeless students live with relatives, or couch-surf. The number of families seeking respite at the Torres Shelter also has increased. Ten years ago, only one family was staying at the shelter. Last year, it served 20 families on average, monthly.
To address the state’s homeless crisis, Gov. Jerry Brown signed off on Senate Bill 850 this past June, earmarking $500 million in one-time funds for local jurisdictions based on Point-in-Time census counts.
Butte County’s share pencils out to just under $4.9 million. To access that money, municipalities have to declare a shelter crisis—so far, the Oroville City Council is the only one to do so. The Butte County Board of Supervisors is set to tackle the topic on Sept. 25, while Chico’s council will consider a vote on the matter at its Oct. 2 meeting.
Butte Countywide Homeless Continuum of Care Coordinator Jennifer Griggs said the funding has intentionally broad parameters to help communities address their specific needs. Possible uses break down into two categories: capital improvements, such as housing (tiny homes or otherwise) and public toilets/showers; and services, such as street outreach and rental assistance.
Griggs pointed to some popular ideas brought forward in community meetings—a detox/sobriety center, mobile medical unit, respite houses and an incentive program for landlords to rent to homeless folks.
Simplicity Village, a proposed tiny home development, also has generated a great deal of buzz. (See “Creating community,” Newslines, Aug. 2.)
A minimum of 5 percent, about $245,000, of the grant funding is required to go to unaccompanied homeless youth or youth at risk of homelessness.
CUSD board member Eileen Robinson has been watching the shelter crisis discussions with an interest in how the school district might be able to apply for funding. She, too, sees the problem as bigger than data might suggest.
“Our families hide because of the stigma, and a lot of them don’t reach out soon enough because of the stigma,” she said. “It makes my heart hurt. … I want to see us embrace the reality of our world.”
Joy Amaro, executive director of the Torres Shelter, sees a shelter crisis declaration as having the potential to bring forth positive change countywide.
“I see everyone stepping up to the plate,” she said. “This is an opportunity we’ve all been waiting for to make that true change happen.”