The school of homeless knocks

Nearly 12,000 students are without permanent housing in Sacramento County

Shahera Hyatt was a homeless student herself before she became director of the California Homeless Youth Project. The project released a policy paper this week showing that schools in the state witnessed a 39-percent increase in homeless students between 2009 and 2013.

Shahera Hyatt was a homeless student herself before she became director of the California Homeless Youth Project. The project released a policy paper this week showing that schools in the state witnessed a 39-percent increase in homeless students between 2009 and 2013.

photo by lovelle harris

Growing up in the East Bay, Makeda Johnson didn’t always have a place to live. Now residing in Woodland and a mother herself, the 23-year-old college student said her parents’ poverty struggles meant multiple moves and way too many new schools, where she struggled to get to class, make the grade and fit in.

During those tumultuous formative years, Johnson can’t recall meeting anyone like her or her siblings. “Honestly, I kind of felt like we were the only ones,” she said.

In reality, they were among thousands.

According to a policy brief out this week from the California Homeless Youth Project, more kids than ever before are hitting the textbooks and the streets.

The statewide research and policy initiative analyzed federal enrollment data for the 2012-13 school year and discovered that the number of California schoolchildren without permanent housing continued to rise—five years after the Great Recession supposedly ended.

Nearly 270,000 students, or 21 percent of the nation’s known homeless student population, experienced some form of homelessness during the previous school year in California, equaling 4 percent of the state’s student body. That’s double the national trend.

In Sacramento County, at least 11,924 schoolchildren—equal to 5 percent of the enrolled student population—experienced homelessness last year, according to an SN&R review of data. The largest proportion—21.7 percent—was enrolled at public and charter schools within the Sacramento City Unified School District.

While Twin Rivers Unified School District placed third, its poverty issues were the most pronounced in another way. During the 2013-14 school year, 87.6 percent of the 31,122 students enrolled in Twin Rivers schools qualified for free or reduced-price meals, according to the Ed-Data website. That’s the highest rate among Sacramento County school districts.

These students represent the new homeless—refugees of a rotten economy who skirt the H-word label and don’t always seek help.

“I can tell you that a good percentage that we consider homeless by definition don’t consider themselves homeless,” said Monica McRho, longtime coordinator for SCUSD’s Parker Family Resource Center & Homeless Services Office. “There’s a lot of people that will never ask for help.”

Back when McRho started her job as a liaison to the district’s impoverished students in 1989, the 300-odd kids requiring her services were chronic cases, experiencing lengthy bouts of homelessness in families that wrestled with extenuating social vexes like addiction or mental illness.

When the economy tanked, her phone started ringing with the harried voices of the newly unemployed and foreclosed, folks in desperate need of a little help to get them through the month—and not getting it.

In recent years, the number of homeless students in the district exploded to nearly 2,500. That spike, which coincided with the recession and has yet to taper off, warped the complexion of the homeless student body as well.

The vast majority of these youths—in the district and across the state—double up with friends or relatives in homes that aren’t their own. (The Department of Education considers a student homeless if he or is without a fixed, adequate nighttime residence at some point during the school year.)

McRho applies a soft touch with these families, counting their numbers using standardized enrollment forms that describe living situations without using the word “homeless,” and relying on them and their schools to reach out to her.

That won’t always happen. As students age, they get better at hiding. More than half of the state’s homeless students were found in pre-kindergarten through fifth grade. Only 27 percent were identified once they reached high school.

When Johnson lived with her mother as a younger child, the stigma of sleeping in a car was masked through artful play. “My mom made a game of it,” she said. “Elementary school is a little easier because kids aren’t as judgmental.”

Later, when Johnson was with her remarried father, she said there was an unofficial rule to conceal the family’s situation and not ask for help.

Districts haven’t always put much effort into identifying homeless students themselves. Less than nine years ago, 40 percent of California school districts claimed they had no homeless students whatsoever.

Even today’s dismal statistics come with big asterisks, as they don’t include homeless children who aren’t attending or have dropped out of school, or the often older students who have hidden their lack of housing for fear of being reported to law enforcement or child welfare authorities.

While many teachers and administrators knew of Johnson’s situation, she said they became less helpful the older she got. In high school, teachers were more apt to offer her skepticism or pity, when all she really needed were books and supplies. “If you don’t have the materials, you fall back and [get left behind],” she said.

That nearly happened a few times during her education career, even though Johnson was a precocious student whose teachers initially placed her in gifted programs. She attended five different high schools before transitioning to a continuation school and earning her diploma shy of her 18th birthday. She’s now close to getting her associate’s degree, and plans on majoring in psychology at Sacramento State University.

When she addressed the state Legislature a few months ago, Johnson stressed the importance that simple remedies—like access to transportation and books—can play in a student’s ability to attend school.

Knowing one’s rights as a homeless student is also huge, says Shahera Hyatt. The director of the California Youth Homeless Project also endured multiple bouts of homelessness throughout her school career. She and her family struggled to track down immunization records, fibbed about having permanent addresses and bummed rides from others just to keep her enrolled.

Turns out they didn’t need to. Students have the right to immediate enrollment whether they can produce health records or addresses of any kind, Hyatt explained. Homeless students also have the right to free transportation.

“There were a lot of things we didn’t know,” she said.

Some lessons come outside of a classroom.