Sandoval: Back to school brings new challenges, hopes for unhoused students
Laura Sandoval, director of programs at PATH, holds up backpacks. Photo courtesy of PATH.

With the return of in-person learning, familiar challenges emerge for families experiencing homelessness. School registration can be complicated due to the loss of critical documents that may have been lost upon becoming homeless. Youth may be reassigned from their former schools (and friend groups) if their address changed while their family temporarily relocated in order to double-up, enroll in shelter or a safe parking program.

Unhoused families also experience an increase of obstacles that stem from financial instability and range from a lack of school supplies and personal protective equipment (PPE), lack of access to hygienic options, internalized stress and mental health problems. These factors pave a clear path for chronic absenteeism, which could jeopardize youth’s academic progress for years to come.

Despite these challenges, our parents make every effort to get their kids safely to and from school. Twice a day, Monday through Friday, most parents we serve find themselves riding the bus with their school-aged children to make sure they arrive to campus safely. Depending on how many children they have, they could be on the bus upwards of four hours daily—two hours in the morning and two in the afternoon. The complications of this journey are also heightened due to language barriers and disabilities.

Between these school runs, these same parents navigate the bus system independently to do a range of personal tasks for their family—everything from seeking employment, to attending mandatory meetings with her benefits worker, to attending court dates to address ongoing legal matters with a previous domestic partner.

The hours spent navigating the bus routes, economic opportunities and legal systems are a repeated exposure to stress that they endure because of their steadfast commitment to doing whatever it takes to get their kids to school.

PATH case management teams explore anything and everything they can do to support these families. After first conducting a family needs assessment and creating an individualized service plan based on the family’s stated housing and family goals, a case manager will generally refer each parent to their school’s McKinney-Vento program.

This historic policy created programs at the federal and local level to preserve the rights and services to children and youth experiencing homelessness. This begins with eliminating barriers to school enrollment and honoring a child’s school of origin to prevent disruption in the child’s peer group. Once enrolled, children are eligible for supportive resources including nutritious meals, hygienic supplies, transportation services and other services to reduce the harmful impacts homelessness can have on young people’s educational experiences.

Our case management teams also identified the need to gather fun back-to-school supplies that would take away fears of showing up to school without adequate school supplies or worse, school supplies that weren’t cool.

This year, our cherished partner Hudson Pacific Properties donated an astonishing 50 brand new backpacks to youth enrolled in PATH programs. Every school-age child started school with a spunky backpack (Elsa, Batman or unicorns for the younger kids; Jordan or Jansport for the older kids).

Each backpack was jam-packed with notebooks, notecards, binders, paper, pencil bags, pencils, paper, crayons, lunchboxes and a personalized supply of PPE. Armed with the essentials, our youth were ready to tackle whatever may come during the new academic year.

Our case management teams find ways to tend to the emotional support needs of PATH families as well. The long bus ride often triggers both parents and children’s emotional health. In addition to advocating for special transportation assistance, our staff will often offer to ride the bus with families while their requests are pending approval—maintaining a vigilant presence of support and stepping in when we see families being overwhelmed.

I am constantly astounded by the intellect and curiosity of the young people we serve. This month, I learned of one teenager who is a brilliant coder and well-versed in Python and JavaScript—he is blowing away our staff with his knowledge. One child barely old enough for school has a knack for multiple languages. Another young person is already adamant that he wants to join the helping profession and work alongside his PATH case manager when he grows up.

When surrounded by stability, resources and empowerment, families see a future in which they break free from the cycle of intergenerational poverty and are presented with opportunities in which they can learn, grow and thrive within and outside of the classroom.

As PATH delivers and advocates for services to eliminate barriers to stable childhood education, we share in this hope. Between the compassionate hearts of many players, policies that support childhood education and the abundant resources of the Silicon Valley, we know that we live in a community that does whatever it can to ensure every child has the chance to be successful in their education.

Note: If your family is currently experiencing homelessness, please contact the Santa Clara County Office of Education to inquire about your local school’s McKinney-Vento services. 

San José Spotlight columnist Laura Sandoval is the director of programs at PATH San Jose, a homeless services and housing development agency. She is also a licensed clinical social worker with over a decade of experience. Her columns appear every fourth Monday of the month. Contact Laura at [email protected]

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