Every morning, Ulises, a single father of three, drives his two youngest children to school in Santa Maria. He does their laundry before work, storing it in the back of his truck as he goes about his day.

After class, his children spend time finishing their homework before a baby sitter picks them up at 5 p.m. They're fed and cared for until 11:30 p.m. when Ulises gets off work.

The family of three now has a roof over its head thanks to help from the nonprofit Fighting Back Santa Maria Valley, though Ulises and his two youngest children called his truck home for several months. 

“Alone it would be no problem,” said Ulises, whose last name is being withheld to protect his family's privacy, “but with my kids, I don’t feel good about it.”

Ulises' family was among thousands considered homeless by the Santa Maria-Bonita School District, Santa Barbara County’s largest school district, and the number has grown exponentially in recent years, according to officials. 

In 2015, 14 percent of Santa Barbara County students were homeless -- an increase of more than 100 percent since 2010, according to data provided by the California Department of Education.

While outreach and support programs have improved day-to-day conditions for many homeless students, a lack of adequate funding and underreporting leads several providers to caution that the magnitude of homelessness at a district and county level is not fully understood. And as the number of homeless families and students increases, advocates and agencies are caught between addressing immediate needs or working to improve the long-term situation.

Defining homelessness

As defined by the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, students are homeless if they "lack a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence." Under the act, children who live in a shelter, motel or hotel, car or RV, transitional housing or those who share a house, mobile home or apartment with another family are considered homeless.

Each year, as mandated by law, students in Santa Barbara County schools are provided with a housing questionnaire (typically at the beginning of the school year) to help district officials determine their housing status. Data reported to the California Department of Education indicates that Santa Barbara County is home to the highest percentage of homeless students in California.

Approximately 94.3 percent of Santa Barbara County students identified as homeless in 2015 shared a single-family home with other families; 1.3 percent of students resided at a motel or hotel and 3.4 percent called one of the county’s temporary shelters their home. Ninety-eight students -- approximately 1 percent -- were unsheltered.

Before coming on board as program manager for the Santa Barbara County Education Office’s Transitional Youth Services Division, Dolores Daniel worked at the Transition House in the city of Santa Barbara. In her eight years of working with and providing service to the county’s homeless population, Daniels said the most common type of homelessness (sharing a single-family home) has not changed despite the overall increase in the numbers.

“I don’t see it as a shift -- it’s always been there,” she said. “The public perception of homelessness may have always been people sleeping on the street, but the obstacles and challenges of [sharing a single-family home] have always been there.”

Many like Ulises, who lives and works in the United States without proper legal status, are apprehensive about seeking or applying for public assistance out of fear of retaliation or deportation.

They are often wary of truthfully responding to the housing questionnaire out of shame or fear of consequences, district officials say. Reluctance to report incidents of economic hardship or homelessness is increasingly common among parents.

“Homelessness is not a person begging on the corner; it’s the person you work with or children you teach every day not knowing where they’re going to sleep that night,” said Alexis Nshamamba, program coordinator for the Good Samaritan Shelter’s homeless youth after-school program.

“I think there are a lot of homeless families living under the radar,” she added. “We have a family living in our shelter who kept reporting to us that they had been in multifamily housing when, in reality, they were living in their car.”

Providing services

The disruptive nature and added stresses of homelessness adversely affect student success and well-being. A 2016 report by Civic Enterprises, a public policy and strategy firm, found that homeless students struggle academically and have a hard time connecting with their peers, contributing to a higher-than-average dropout rate.

“This is an everyday occurrence for numerous families I work with,” said Sol Messeguer, program specialist at Fighting Back Santa Maria Valley. "It's important for children to grow in a stable environment and for them to have a space to live and sleep."

Messeguer is contracted by the Santa Maria-Bonita School District to serve as a homeless education liaison for the district’s 20 schools. She is the only full-time employee dedicated to identifying and directly servicing the short- and long-term needs of homeless families and students.

As of 2015, the Local Control Accountability Plan requires school districts to detail how they meet the needs of homeless students. According to Daniel, districts are eligible for state and federal funding to provide supplemental services for homeless students but they are often inadequate or fail to cover related expenses fully.

"One of the problems is that not every district gets their funding; those districts feel the impact the worst," Daniel said. "Now, the districts may have to find another staff member or reassign a current one. It can stretch the resources of the districts that don’t have a concentration of homeless students."

The County Education Office currently employs no direct service staff, Daniel said, citing a lack of funding or grant money. The county previously received federal grant money but it was exhausted three years ago.

The office now operates as an information clearinghouse for families and students uncertain about where to turn for assistance; direct services are provided by individual districts through partnerships with various agencies or organizations, like the one with Fighting Back Santa Maria.

Every day around 2:30 p.m., 7-year-old Jaden and 11-year-old Eldric are whisked from their school to the Good Samaritan Shelter’s homeless youth after school program. Supported by grants and donations and run in partnership with Fighting Back Santa Maria, Nshamamba and a group of volunteers provide snacks, homework assistance and additional support from the program’s one-room classroom.

“We want to provide students with a safe, comfortable place for them to get their homework done,” Nshamamba said. “All of our students are homeless to some degree, so it creates a bond on that level -- we can talk openly about it and work on overcoming some issues they face.”

According to Nshamamba, the number of students attending the shelter’s after-school program has notably increased. A few years ago, the program drew an average of 20 participants; now, Jaden and Eldric are two of roughly 40 students.

"Our maximum used to be 20 students -- we were pushing at the seams with that number,” she said. “Now, 20 [students] is low to average for us."

Addressing the problem

Although the average household income in Santa Maria is roughly $53,000, the concentration of low-paying and minimum-wage jobs -- specifically in agriculture -- create a rental housing crisis and a spike in homelessness throughout the area.

“One of the biggest changes I’ve seen is that a lot of working-class families are unable to find housing due to the county [housing] crunch,” Nshamamba said. “There’s just not enough affordable housing options available for the people living here.”

Over the past year and a half, Ulises applied for numerous rental properties. Despite holding a stable job for the past 15 years and paying the $20 to $30 application fee every time, he has yet to hear back from a rental agency or landlord.

“[My kids] haven't had a stable place to stay [ever since] I split with their mom,” he said. “We'll go from place to place -- one day here, another there. It's been hard for everyone, but especially for them.”

Messeguer, who has been working with Ulises since mid-October, said housing and rental prices are a widespread problem.

“Right now I have five families who are going to be evicted,” she said. “They're all trying to find a place to live, but they can't afford the rent.”

According to the city of Santa Maria, 1,300 residential units are under development with more than 8,200 new residential units to be completed by 2040. But with the average monthly rent for a two-bedroom apartment hovering at $1,500 and median home value at $350,000, new residential development could exacerbate the issue rather than alleviate it.

“Since the recession, housing prices [have been] moving up at a rapid pace,” said Sheryl Flores, vice president for home ownership for People’s Self-Help Housing, a Central Coast nonprofit that creates affordable housing and self-sufficiency programs. “Many of our communities have seen a major increase in home and rent price -- building more won’t solve the problem.”

Since 1970, People’s Self-Help Housing has added more than 48 housing complexes and 1,600 affordable housing units across the Central Coast. The group is in the process of constructing a 34-unit complex in Santa Maria and a 40-unit senior complex is scheduled for construction.

Rick Gulino, director of neighborhood development and resident services, said the organization has made a conscious effort to help assist homeless families in both a short-term and long-term manner.

“Anyone who comes to our property from a homeless situation will be immediately assigned to a social worker to get the extra push to maintain their housing,” he said. “Whenever we have a new property opening up, we [reserve] 10 percent for homeless people and try to place them into our housing. As of now, we’ve identified 174 units that house formerly homeless families.”

Homecoming

Three days after they met, Messeguer said she found Ulises and his children a room to rent. The family saw the place on a Saturday morning and moved in later that day.

Though small, the $600 per month room in a house they share with another family provides his children with something they have not had for a while -- stability.

“Last August, it was my daughter’s birthday; my son had one in September. For the first time in two years, we were able to celebrate them,” he said.

Mathew Burciaga covers education in Santa Maria and the surrounding area for Lee Central Coast Newspapers. Follow him on Twitter @math_burciaga

 

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