United Way packed 1,465 donated backpacks with binders, pens and pencils as part of the nonprofit’s Stuff The Bus campaign this summer. But it’s not enough to equip even half of Monterey County’s homeless students for school.
With only $33,000 in federal funds that pass through the California Department of Education to the Monterey County Office of Education, administrators rely on the donated goods.
But simply tracking student housing status is a step in the right direction, according to Anne Wheelis, Monterey County Office of Education’s homeless liaison. For the past decade, school officials have checked in with students about where they live, which can connect qualified families to services such as free school lunches and school supplies.
Homeless services aren’t limited to families on the street. Wheelis says students with a place to stay – even if it’s not their own – sometimes don’t realize they qualify for assistance until school officials step in.
With only 10 of 25 Monterey County school districts tallied, more than 4,000 families with K-8 students reported being homeless last year, a 40-percent increase over the previous year.
Most of those kids are in what Wheelis calls the doubled-up or tripled-up category: “In Salinas, sometimes we’ll find four families in a tiny little two-bedroom apartment,” she says.
Most families report having lost their homes to foreclosure, and are in need of transitional housing more than emergency shelters. But there’s a shortage of beds for chronically homeless adults, too.
That’s especially apparent in Salinas’ Chinatown. “The Women Alive emergency shelter is supposed to be temporary,” Dorothy’s Place Director Jill Allen says, “but we’ve got women who have been with us for three years because they’ve got no other place to go.”
The Salinas City Council discussed homelessness on Aug. 14, and revisited a year-old report by the nonprofit Coalition of Homeless Service Providers. The report recommends consolidating homeless services into a centralized hub. But when $250,000 in federal grants didn’t come through this spring, the Chinatown project was put on hold.
Allen, who’s been exploring creative solutions for the chronically homeless, still sees potential for the idea. “I am not willing to wait for the big funder to step in and build the campus,” she says. “I think this can happen right now.”