Funk: How San Jose school districts are helping homeless students
A homeless encampment along a Highway 101 on-ramp at Story Road. Photo by Kyle Martin.

Homelessness has become a daily discussion in San Jose and Santa Clara County for good reason; the 2019 homeless count reported in May revealed that from 2017 to 2019, homelessness increased by 42% in San Jose, from 4,350 individuals to 6,172 individuals.

In Santa Clara County, the homeless population increased by 31%, from 7,394 people living on the streets to 9,706 individuals.

Many of the discussions that I have read and listened to focus on adults, affordable housing, job training and access to social service supports. All of these are important topics and need to be addressed as part of a comprehensive solution.

However, I feel that youth are sometimes forgotten in the homeless discussion. The greatest challenge to working in public education is that we try our best to serve every student who walks through our doors. Students who are considered homeless are some of the most highly-vulnerable population in our schools.

The McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act of 1987 requires state educational agencies to ensure that each child of a homeless individual and each homeless youth has equal access to the same free, appropriate public education, including public preschool education, as provided to other children and youths.

The McKinney-Vento Act defines homeless children and youths as individuals who lack a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence. You might be a family or individual that’s been displaced from your home, living in a single room with multiple people, living in a shelter, living in your car, living in a garage or couch-surfing.

We need to peel back the onion and dig deeper into the research and collection of data. I believe the homeless count is much higher than what’s reported due to the fact that we seem to report mostly about adults.

As you can imagine, if you’re worried about where you are going to sleep, eat your next meal, wash your clothes and bathe, optimizing your learning may not be a top priority. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs outlines the framework for understanding basic human motivation which starts at the first level or rung of his pyramid: air, food and shelter. It’s hard to move up the pyramid without the basic human necessities.

In East Side Union High School District, a team of certificated staff provide direct support and services to youth in transitional housing to ensure their academic, behavioral and social-emotional needs are met. Under our Local Control Accountability Plan, we have hired specialists at each school site (who qualify youth under the McKinney-Vento Act ) to ensure the youth are provided with school supplies, transportation, clothing, shoes, hygienic supplies, free lunch, academic and social-emotional counseling, and referrals for low- or no-cost medical, dental, and vision services.

In addition, the district’s School Linked Services Coordinator assists youth and their families with referrals to a variety of outside agencies, such as food resources for the entire family, and temporary and permanent housing or assistance with rent and utilities, if needed.

Attendance can be an enormous obstacle for our homeless population. Instead of simply being a hammer at the district level, we have tried to create a more holistic approach to working with families who have been displaced.

We have a representative from the Bill Wilson Center who sits on our School Attendance Review Board hearing panel and presents information each month to families regarding their rapid re-housing project, case management and counseling services available for students and their families.

At the annual McKinney-Vento Holiday Dinner, students receive a warm holiday dinner, gift certificates to AMC theater and Target, as well as brand new socks, beanies, gloves and scarves. Siblings under the age of 18 (whether enrolled in ESUHSD or not) also receive a gift. Families receive free health and dental check-ups from Foothill Clinic. In addition, the San Jose Arena Authority provides tickets to Sharks, Barracuda and other events that come to the SAP Center.

We have several students enrolled as “unaccompanied youth” who do not have a parent or guardian living in the immediate area, but are staying with a friend of the family (non-guardian) or staying with various friends from school (couch surfing).

The majority of our students receiving services under the McKinney-Vento Act live with one parent doubled up in another family member (or friend’s) home. In some cases, families of three or more are renting one bedroom in a single-family home. Due to the unstable living situation of many of our students who qualify, self-reporting fluctuates throughout the year.  We average approximately 250 students who qualify under McKinney-Vento on a yearly basis.

In San Jose Unified School District, the McKinney-Vento Program consists of a coordinator, two liaisons and support staff. For many years, SJUSD served approximately 100+ students and families in providing resources, backpacks, school uniforms and supplies to students and families.

About three years ago, however, the number of McKinney-Vento students and families in SJUSD began to grow. At the end of the 2018-19 school year, they successfully served nearly 500 students and families, including an increasing population of unaccompanied youth.

Two years ago, they piloted a partnership with the Bill Wilson Center to quickly rehouse up to 60 families and to work with families who were most at risk of becoming homeless before they became homeless. This partnership has grown and developed such that Bill Wilson now provides mental health services to the families it serves. In addition, they have leveraged their success with our partner agencies to better serve the needs of this at-risk population.

It is these types of partnerships that are necessary to support some of our most underserved and under-resourced population.  To solve our homeless population in Santa Clara County, we must take courageous leadership with a multi-pronged approach to help solve this human rights issue.

However, we simply cannot forget the impact on our students trying to secure the best possible education while they and their families are figuring out how to meet their basic needs of food and shelter on a daily basis. Talk about resiliency.

San José Spotlight columnist Chris Funk is the superintendent of the East Side Union High School District. His columns appear every third Monday of the month. Contact Chris at funkc@esuhsd.org or follow @chrisfunksupt on Twitter.

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