On summer break, homeless students will lose safe havens

PITTSBURG, Calif. - Michael Fiore and his son Matthew became homeless in 2010, after Fiore survived cancer but couldn't find work.

After losing their Concord apartment and nearly everything they owned, the 61-year-old former Sears appliance technician and his son have alternated the last two years between sleeping in their car, in shelters and with friends.

Matthew, a Clayton Valley High sophomore, is one of thousands of homeless students in the Bay Area trying to keep up with his assignments while dealing with an unstable living situation.

"Only my two best friends know that I'm homeless," said the soft-spoken 18-year-old, who is currently sharing a room with his dad in a friend's Pittsburg home. "I do my homework. I've just been doing the best I can."

There were 220,738 homeless students attending schools in California last year. Nationwide, the number of homeless students could surpass 1 million this year for the first time, said Barbara Duffield, policy director for the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth.

Unlike most schoolchildren, they're not looking forward to summer vacation, she said.

"It means a period of increased stress," she said. "They may miss the certainty of knowing: 'I'm going to go to school, see Mr. Smith, see my friends and be able to be a kid for eight hours. And I know I'm going to get something to eat.'"

Matthew and his dad aren't sure if their friend will let them stay much longer. Although they have a temporary roof over their heads, they are considered homeless according to the definition used by school districts throughout the country, which includes anyone who lacks a regular and adequate nighttime residence, said Catherine Giacalone, who coordinates homeless education in Contra Costa County.

The number of homeless students in Contra Costa county jumped from 1,773 in 2009-10 to 2,222 last year. This year's numbers won't be available until July, but they are expected to rise due to the lagging economy.

"Our numbers have been increasing, unfortunately," she said, "because so many people are losing their housing and that is increasing the number of homeless families."

It is an issue throughout Bay Area school districts, whether located in low-income or more affluent areas. There were 2,538 homeless students enrolled in Santa Clara County schools last year and San Mateo County served 739 homeless students. Alameda County had a staggering 5,804 homeless student enrolled in district schools.

This year, Mount Diablo has already served 530 homeless students, including 31 who were just identified this month, said James Wogan, who coordinates the district's Homeless Outreach Program for Education, or HOPE.

"We know that there are more," he said. "We do our outreach and make sure schools know the definition of legal homelessness. We know there's some stigma attached. They worry that they might lose their school placement. We try to make sure everybody knows their rights."

According to the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, schools must allow students to stay in the same school they attended before they became homeless and must provide transportation, supplies and other services such as tutoring.

Trish Anderson, who coordinates homeless student services in collaboration with Alameda County district schools, said the problem is growing.

"We've seen a rise in the number of unaccompanied youth, including runaways or those who are not living with mom and dad," she said. "And unfortunately, there's no housing really available for them. They don't have anywhere to go."

Anderson said some kids are resourceful and find temporary employment, while others will just hang out or couch surf.

"Our priority is just keeping them in school, making sure they have equal access to education and that they're not pushed out - because for so many of them, school is the only constant in their life," she said.

Olympic continuation high school student Christina Reyes, 18, said she has been couch-surfing for a couple of years.

"I stay at friends' houses and stuff," she said. "I used to live with my mom, but she had difficulties with her living situation, so it just wasn't working out for me. I had the opportunity to just drop out of school, but I didn't because it gives me something to do. I have something to look forward to every day."

Bret Baird, who teaches physical education at Kennedy Middle School in Redwood City, said he has noticed dramatic changes in the behavior of some students when they become homeless.

"I found out after the fact, because kids are embarrassed to tell you," he said. "The ones who act out will get noticed and will get help. But you really feel for those who suffer in silence, and they're probably the majority."

Duffield said American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funding helped provide additional services during the past few years, but those have dried up, even as the homeless population is increasing. Still, she said schools are filling critical needs for these students.

"Public schools are the best safety net that kids have because they're the only place that kids have a right to be," she said. "When there are no shelters or shelters are full, when food banks have no food, a child has a federal right to a seat in classroom where they can get free meals and have structure with help from adults. It's a tribute to schools that without more money, they're serving and enrolling more kids. The hope is that education is still what these kids are clinging to when they have nothing else."


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