In an apartment off of Forest Avenue in Pacific Grove, a mother wakes up her children to get ready for school. It’s 4 in the morning.
That mother has agreed to talk to the Weekly using an alias, Gina DiMaggio, to protect her family’s identity. She feeds her kids and helps them dress. She walks her son and daughter to their first bus stop, all before sunrise. It’s the beginning of their morning commute to Los Arboles Middle School and Olson Elementary School in Marina.
There is no direct bus route from Marina to Pacific Grove, so it’s crucial to start early in the morning to avoid missing any connections. Their first bus ride begins at 6am, and with a connection, they make it to Los Arboles Middle School by 7:45am. After that, it’s about a half-hour walk to Olson Elementary School to make it by the 8:30am bell. “God forbid we miss our connection, because waiting for the next bus is another hour-and-a-half sometimes,” DiMaggio says.
The commute is necessary for now. DiMaggio’s kids, legally at least, are homeless. Despite having a roof over their heads and living with DiMaggio’s mom, the family is not on the lease.
DiMaggio found herself in this situation after a series of unfortunate events led to more unfortunate events. Her kids’ father landed in prison, and she had a hard time coping with being a single parent. She lost her job, and subsequently her home in Marina, near her children’s schools.
Eventually she ended up with her kids in her mother’s two-bedroom apartment: “As their mother, it was the best that I could do.”
DiMaggio wants her children to have a stable school schedule and environment. Though she believes her 11-year-old daughter is thankful she didn’t have to uproot her social life, having attended Marina schools through all of her childhood, the long commute wears on the family. “I can see it on their faces,” DiMaggio says. “They’re tired. They need sleep, but they have to take this long commute just to get to school.”
Federal and state laws protect homeless children’s right to an education. But it’s not easy. Like the DiMiaggio kids, many homeless students are constantly on the move. This makes it harder for school districts to serve them, especially when they live outside of their boundaries. Another problem: Some students and parents don’t recognize they are technically homeless. It’s one of the challenges of being housed, but legally homeless.
DiMaggio isn’t alone in her experience. The homeless student population in Monterey County has risen astronomically in the last decade. In the last five years, the homeless student population has more than doubled, going from 3,160 in 2014-2015 to 8,050 in 2018-2019, according to the California Department of Education. But the evidence of this spike is not on the street. It’s hidden. It’s in garages, cars, trailers and apartments meant for one family that are crowded with several. They look like DiMaggio’s situation, sometimes multi-generational families living in crowded or unstable conditions and striving for normalcy.
Public school districts have a role to play in meeting the needs of their homeless students. It’s largely a question of finding them when they’re not easily found.
DIMAGGIO’S KIDS ARE WHAT SCHOOL DISTRICTS WOULD CALL MCKINNEY-VENTO STUDENTS. The McKinney-Vento Act of 1987 is federal legislation protecting the rights of homeless students and foster youth (see sidebar). Primarily, it ensures their right to access a public education.
How big is the McKinney-Vento population in Monterey County? According to the CDE, there are 8,050 students experiencing homelessness. Former Monterey County Office of Education’s McKinney-Vento and Foster Youth Coordinator Darius Brown (who left his post in July) says the numbers are likely higher. In part because the McKinney-Vento Act’s definition of homeless students is expansive, and with the broad definition comes broad interpretation, both student-by-student and district-by-district.
“It’s a sensitive topic because kids look around and there are four walls around them,” Brown says of why kids are reluctant to identify as homeless. “They are living in a garage or a room in a house with three other families, but not on the street. Parents want to think the same.”
If students won’t personally identify as homeless, schools can’t expect them to relay accurate information.
Brown uses Salinas as an example. In Salinas Union High School District, 1 percent of students are homeless. Yet one of their biggest feeder districts, Salinas City Elementary School District, considers 37 percent of their student population homeless.
“See what I’m saying? There’s a gap. Homeless students from [SCESD] didn’t just suddenly become not homeless,” Brown says. “The math doesn’t add up.”
Alma Pío Garcia is SUHSD’s homeless liaison. She says by the time students hit high school, they’re more socially aware and many of them fill out school questionnaires about housing themselves, instead of their parents. “They have a little more pride and don’t want to ‘out’ themselves with the generic backpack,” she says, referring to donated school supplies.
But a few kids misfiling forms doesn’t explain the difference between SUHSD’s 232 homeless students and the elementary district’s 3,318 students.
There are discrepancies and questions about how to count and what qualifies as “homeless.” But whatever the accurate numbers truly are, what is known is that Monterey County has the highest rates of students with unstable housing situations in the region, from Sonoma County to San Luis Obispo County, according to current CDE data.
Pío Garcia says SUHSD distinguishes between multi-generational housing and overcrowding. “It’s about how stable the housing situation is,” she says. “If the landlord can kick them out any day, or code enforcement shuts them down, that’s who we consider a McKinney-Vento student. If it’s grandma living with son and mom, and the conditions are safe and one family member owns the house, that’s stable. That’s not homelessness.”
Comparatively, SUHSD’s counting methods are more hands-on than the methods defined by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, a federal agency also tasked with counting homeless. HUD has four categories of homelessness, similar to the McKinney-Vento Act, and one way they count is a point-in-time survey. Locally, that homeless census is conducted every two years, in a single early-morning trek through streets, parks and shelters of Monterey County, trying to get a snapshot of people living outdoors. The HUD survey does not count what Brown calls “sheltered homeless” – those living in garages, couch surfing or in crowded conditions. Varying methods of counting and understandings of catch-all definitions pose a problem for federal agencies that are meant to solve or ameliorate the problem of homelessness. If there are variations, eventually someone, like a sheltered homeless student, can fall through the cracks because they go uncounted.
“The last point-in-time survey [in Monterey County] reported 160 homeless families to HUD,” Brown says. “Does that sound right, with 8,050 homeless students? No, it doesn’t. These agencies are not on the same page.”
SALINAS CITY ELEMENTARY SCHOOL DISTRICT’S FAMILY RESOURCE CENTER, which is housed in Sherwood Elementary School but serves the entire district, is both a beacon of hope and a reminder that the homeless student population is growing. There is a storage unit filled with necessities for school children. In one large room filled with backpacks, toiletries, uniforms, tarps, blankets and small toys, a girl and her mother stop to pick up a few essentials – clothes, some books and a stuffed animal.
Surrounding them are letters, decorated canvas bags, and cards with words of encouragement from community members stuck to the walls. Some are written by homeless children themselves. One letter reads: “Dear Santa Cause (sic), can you bring me a house, please!!!” Nearby is a Salinas Police Department sign that begins: “You are trespassing and illegally camping.”
As the population of homeless students grows, so does Cheryl Camany’s job. She is the district’s homeless student liaison. When she first started the job in 2001, it was a part-time position. Today she works full-time with three other employees at the Family Resource Center. From 2001 to today, she’s seen the homeless students population balloon. “Here’s some perspective,” she says. “In 2007-08, we had 261 [homeless students]. Last year, we had 3,568.”
It wasn’t that 3,200 students suddenly became homeless, Camany says, it was a confluence of factors – stagnating wages, high costs of living and better communication and data reporting.
The latter is a process that begins with a mandatory residency questionnaire. Those questionnaires are then screened, and if that student’s family describes a possibly unstable housing situation – like living in a garage or motel – Camany and her team follow up with phone calls and letters to confirm whether that student is truly vulnerable and qualifies as a McKinney-Vento student. “Here are the maybes, and that’s not even all of them,” she says, pointing to stacks of pink paper. She does this for every student at SCESD.
The district began with simple things like changing wording on questionnaires; instead of asking, “Are you or are you not homeless,” they began asking about what kind of housing a student lives in. Then came questions about how many families or other people lived in that residence. They increased the frequency of checking up on those families. Then they began training community members and members of faith communities on how to identify and interact with homeless families.
“We refined the process,” she says.
Today, Camany’s job has expanded to entire department responsible for running the district’s Family Resource Center in Sherwood Elementary School in the East Salinas and an appointment-only resource center housed in Kammann Elementary School in North Salinas.
Carlos Diaz, Monterey Peninsula Unified School District’s homeless liaison, has also learned how to centralize services. When he started in 2007 there were 167 homeless students, compared to 985 a decade later. Diaz made changes like making residence questionnaires mandatory and offering the survey in Spanish. “It used to be that only a few people knew that we could help,” he says.
After identifying the McKinney-Vento students, there is offering services. “We make sure they have clothes and backpacks, immunizations – those kinds of things,” Diaz says.
It’s all meant to make sure the district is efficiently supporting its neediest students with what resources are available. But not all districts are like MPUSD or SCESD. Some districts have hard-to navigate support systems that can shut kids out of services – or schools near where they live – in the first place.
DIMAGGIO WOULD HAVE PREFERRED TO TRANSFER HER KIDS TO PACIFIC GROVE SCHOOLSinstead of keeping them enrolled in Marina schools. But she says she was volleyed back and forth between officials, partly due to questions about whether MPUSD schools could meet her son’s special needs. But she says she was met with a wall of bureaucracy at Pacific Grove Unified School District.
“My name wasn’t on my mom’s lease, so [PGUSD] didn’t take them in,” DiMaggio says. In cases like this, Brown and Diaz, say P.G.’s decision not to enroll DiMaggio’s kids may violate the McKinney-Vento Act, which states homeless students are to be “immediately enrolled,” and “promptly provided necessary services.” (McKinney-Vento does say that switching schools isn’t ideal, but if it’s in the “best interest” of the child, a transfer may be necessary for the child’s well-being.)
DiMaggio’s predicament is familiar to Diaz. “We get students all the time from outside of our boundaries moving around, who can’t enroll or re-enroll Carmel [Unified School District] and [PGUSD], because they’re homeless. They come to us.”
Carmel Unified identified four homeless students in 2017-2018. In an email, the district says officials work closely with MCOE in identifying McKinney-Vento students and have trained their staff to recognize homeless students. In the same year, Pacific Grove Unified identified two homeless students.
PGUSD Superintendent Ralph Porras can’t speak specifically to DiMaggio’s situation, but says the way he and his staff interpret the McKinney-Vento Act is to minimize moving a student from school to school. Their main concern is making sure the student’s environment is as consistent as possible – even if that might mean a long commute, and isn’t what the parents wants.
“We make mistakes and we try to recover,” Porras says. “The bigger worry for us is that if we don’t know which of our students are homeless, we can’t offer programs and support – that comes with the verification.”
One of PGUSD’s challenges is handling the mobile nature of homeless students. They send out residency questionnaires and follow up by phone and mail, a process that Porras says can take up to a year.
“We’ll do mail, we might have a phone call to the emergency contact, because every student needs an emergency contact,” he says. “Our biggest goal is to at least know how we can help you.”
IN 2017-2018, AT LEAST 12 LOCAL SCHOOLS HAD HOMELESS POPULATIONS accounting for 20 percent or more of the student body, according to a study on homelessness done by nonprofit Pivot Learning. By their calculations of 12 counties in the greater San Francisco Bay Area, Monterey County also had the highest population of students experiencing homelessness: 7,686 out 77,517 total students enrolled, or around 10 percent. Compare this to nearby counties that are more urban, like Santa Clara County which has 2,963 homeless students out 273,264 total students enrolled, or 1 percent.
The population doesn’t show signs of decreasing any time soon. At Salinas Union, Pío Garcia reported in August – just weeks after school started – that they were already running out of school supplies. Camany says the elementary district could use another full-time resource center. And this is with what professionals believe is an undercount.
The California Department of Education reported that 2,700 schools reported having no homeless students, a troubling number when the number of homeless students from other bodies like the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness clocks 246,296 homeless students in the state – the highest in the nation.
The math is important to get right, if the services are going to reach students who need them. As Brown points out, every number is a student and every kid that goes uncounted increases the likelihood of that student not finishing school and struggling into adulthood to get out of poverty.
The pitfalls of undercounting haven’t fallen on deaf ears. On March 6, the state’s Joint Committee on Legislative Audit approved an audit of school districts to verify they are accurately reporting the number of students experiencing homelessness. (The California State Auditor’s office will track one charter school and three to five districts, which have yet to be made public.)
For administrators on the front lines of fighting to keep kids in the education system, the hope is the audit will light a fire under districts to improve their systems, increase collaboration within their communities, and highlight that this problem can’t be solved by school districts alone.
Diaz hopes for a bigger solution to the bigger issue of homelessness: “My dream is to lose my job,” he says.
In the 1980s, the United States experienced a boom in the homeless population…
The near future, however, is uncertain, both for institutional solutions and individuals. Families like the DiMaggio and her children are relying on what support systems they have. DiMaggio recently completed an out-patient recovery from the Genesis House, a substance abuse program. And with a clearer head, she’s trying to find therapy for herself and her daughter. Her mother writes to U.S. Rep. Jimmy Panetta, D-Carmel Valley, from time-to-time asking him to work on affordable housing and to help homeless families with children. “She’s my biggest advocate. She’s always been proactive,” DiMaggio says of her mom.
But at the end of the day, she is figuring out a complicated puzzle: how to get out of homelessness while keeping her family intact. It requires big things, like finding a home. But it’s also smaller fixes, like making phone calls about job openings, or having enough bus passes to accompany her kids on their commute. She needs to make everything work, like any other parent. “I’m accessing what I can,” she says, “and I’m constantly trying to figure it out.”