Last Monday, the temperature was in the mid-90s and the sun was pounding down on the Modesto Outdoor Emergency Shelter.
Eight children, ranging from a rowdy 10-year-old girl to a timid 14-year-old boy, were sitting in a circle in a shady spot under the Ninth Street Bridge, chatting about their favorite music. Their lives are hidden, yet overexposed. They know each others’ vulnerabilities and tease one another about them. But they defend each other like siblings.
“That’s Juan, Miguel and Jesus,” said a preteen boy, offering made-up names as he thought outsiders saw them — all the same.
When asked if they were looking forward to school starting, “Why did you say that?,” “I hate school,” “I don’t want to go back,” were their responses. The problem? They’re embarrassed for classmates to know they are homeless.
Still, they need to get ready for the new year without resources or the security of a house, and with the everlasting stigma that leaves them vulnerable to taunts from other children.
Homelessness can be a severe detriment in a child’s education.
The kids don’t have supplies or clothes like their peers. They also don’t have regular access to running water or electricity. So, they may arrive at school unkempt and unprepared for class, making them easy prey for bullying.
They miss more school days, more frequently change schools and have higher rates of developmental delays than their peers. They are less likely to graduate from high school or attain a general equivalency diploma by the age of 18, increasing their risk of remaining impoverished.
“The biggest educational challenges are being able to shower daily, the stigma, not being picked up and dropped off in front of other kids, how they dress and fitting in,” said Kelly Alvarado, the multidisciplinary team manager at the Modesto tent city shelter also known as MOES.
Alvarado’s primary duties are coordinating all of the services for the campers, such as social services, housing, benefits and mental health counselors. One action to help fight the stigma: Alvarado worked with Stanislaus County Office of Education, SCOE, to have the school bus pick up the kids at MOES before getting other students.
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Families a third of nation’s homeless
Tamran and her husband of 26 years and their two school-age daughters — the family requested their last names and the names of the children not be used — have been without a consistent place to live the past five years. Tamran said she and her husband struggled with substance abuse in the past, but they have been clean and sober since last year. They can’t afford their own place. They were one of the first families to move into MOES when it opened last February.
“JP says we’re not homeless, we’re house-less,” said Tamran, “She’s a doll and she always sees the positive.”
Eleven-year-old JP attended elementary school and her 16-year-old sister, TP, went to high school in west Modesto last year. Before moving to MOES, the family didn’t have basic resources to get the girls to school, so they missed days and fell behind.
Both girls said they love school, but didn’t tell anyone where they lived. Like the other kids, they were worried about being judged by teachers and their classmates.
Families with children make up more than one-third of the homeless population nationally. Across California in the 2016-17 school year, nearly one-quarter million students in K-12 were considered homeless, including those living in insufficient domiciles such as motels, cars, emergency shelters and “couch surfing,” defined as temporarily staying with friends or family.
Modesto parks were a common overnight place for homeless people until the MOES site opened, through a partnership of the City of Modesto and Stanislaus County. Daily operations are performed by Turning Point Community Programs.
Doug Holcomb, MOES operations manager, said the camp provides temporary shelter for about 400 people every night. The youngest camper was 5 weeks old but most children are school-age.
G. Garcia proudly said her kids didn’t miss any school days since being at the camp. Garcia and her family of three children, ages 16, 11 and 10, and four dogs, moved from Beard Brook Park to MOES in February. She reports being homeless off-and-on for the past 10 years, after she and the kids were victims of domestic violence and abuse.
“I don’t tell nobody,” said Garcia’s 10-year-old, MN, about living at MOES. She was born at a mission and has never lived in a house of her own. MN has wildly colored hair, sun-tanned skin and a feisty attitude. She wants to be a veterinarian when she grows up, and always has one of her dogs on her lap.
“The school system is very supportive,” said Garcia. MN receives some educational assistance at school because of a physical disability. The family also receives help from the Center for Human Services, which provides the kids with items for school.
“Working with SCOE, we give the kids backpacks,” said Heather Antonino, outreach coordinator for the Center for Human Services.
She has worked with most of the kids since September 2018, while they were still living at Beard Brook. She said her agency works with partners, government and nonprofit, to get the kids what they need for school such as shoes, supplies or other tangible items.
Garcia and her family get by on a little more than $1,000 a month — not enough to afford Modesto’s average rent of $1,215, not to mention food, utilities, clothes or basic necessities. For families at MOES, the monthly income ranges from zero to $1,100, according to Holcomb.
The average expense to prepare a child for a new school year is $669, according to the National Retail Federation, making it out of reach for low-income families. The cost includes clothes, shoes, instructional materials, supplies and electronics (mostly for high schoolers).
Ways to reduce the stigma
In the 2016-17 school year, Stanislaus County had 3,702 homeless students in public schools, a little more than 3% of the 116,035 students enrolled in K-12.
“Our goal is to make sure our homeless families don’t miss a beat,” said Fred Berry, the SCOE homeless liaison coordinator.
He trains homeless advocates in the 25 school districts and county schools about educational and community resources to assist the families. He said the training emphasizes referring to the students as “in transition,” and not using the label of “homeless” because of the negative stigma.
The resources are available to all homeless and at-risk youth in Stanislaus County, not just those staying at MOES. In addition to the county and the City of Modesto, several nonprofit organizations help these vulnerable kids prepare for the new school year.
“Their education is our No. 1 priority, after their health,” said Tamran, “I want to make sure they have what they need to get their diplomas.”
Both of her girls had caught up to their grade levels by the end of the last school year.
Meanwhile, Tamran’s family is on the path of success — they’ve completed the necessary classes, everyone is participating in counseling, and now they’re moving to their own house. Tamran is volunteering with Turning Point to give back, and the girls are excited to start school in August.
When asked how people could help, all three asked for kindness.
“Just say ‘Hi, How are you?’ ” said TP.
“Say ‘are you OK?’ ” was JP’s request. With her eyes looking down and a sad expression on her round, freckled-face, JP said, “Just because of the way they’re living doesn’t mean you can make fun of them.”
“A smile, how are you doing? have a good day can change someone’s life,” added Tamran tearfully, “You’re a human being no matter your circumstances.”
This story was produced with financial support from The Stanislaus County Office of Education and the Stanislaus Community Foundation, along with the GroundTruth Project’s Report for America initiative. The Modesto Bee maintains full editorial control of this work.
Several backpack and school supplies giveaways are planned throughout the county. If you are able to donate, or you need help gathering school supplies for your child, information can be found at the websites below or by doing an internet search for “backpack giveaway” with adding your community’s name.
City of Modesto “6th Annual Westside Community – Welcome Back to School Backpack Giveaway ” is scheduled on Friday, August 2nd, from 6:30 to 8:30p.m. at the Neighborhood Center at James Marshall Park.
iHEART Radio with Center for Human Services is also hosting a backpack donation drive on July 27, from 10a.m. to 2p.m. at the Wal-Mart on 3848 McHenry Blvd.
The Modesto Gospel Mission Back-to-school block party is set for July 27, from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. and includes shoes, free haircuts and other activities.
SCOE Backpack Palooza is collecting school supplies through July 31. More information can be found at https://www.stancoe.org/go/backpack
Visit SCOE website for additional information about educational resources for homeless youth at https://www.stancoe.org/division/educational-options/prevention-programs/homeless-education
World Relief Modesto accepts donations of backpacks and other school supplies to be donated to refugees.
Additional resources can be found at: