They are living in cars. They are staying in motels. They are “doubling up” with relatives or other families because of financial reasons. They are “kids (who) are bounced around a lot,” with their meager belongings contained in a pillow case that is their “personal suitcase.”
There are nearly 700 of them in the Manteca Unified School District scattered among the more than two-dozen elementary and high school campuses in the incorporated cities of Manteca and Lathrop, in French Camp, Weston Ranch which is actually a part of the City of Stockton, and outlying county unincorporated areas.
By legal definition, students whose families “double up” or live together with another family under one roof because of choice and due to economic hardship, are not considered homeless.
“We have lot of people – multiple families living in homes. They are families who choose to live together because of culture and that’s (their) preference. That’s not homeless,” said Manteca Unified Health Services Director Caroline Thibodeau.
The students who fall under the category of homeless are those who are “doubled up” in one house or apartment “because you have no choice financially – you can’t manage so you have to move in with mom and grandparents,” Thibodeau said.
“That’s being homeless.”
In 2001, the Education Assistance Act was enacted which mandated that there be homeless-education liaisons in every school. However, no funds were directly appropriated for it to be implemented. In Manteca Unified, the implantation was placed under Health Services with Thibodeau as the liaison person.
When the program started some 10 years ago, there were less than a dozen who were identified as homeless students. The numbers later multiplied several hundred times over, especially during the mortgage meltdown and foreclosure mess leading up to the Great Recession, said Thibodeau. Today, there are nearly 700 students who are considered homeless whom the school district is trying to help. The number varies from year to year, and sometimes it’s hard to quantify the need due to a number of factors. Also, these have to be handled discreetly simply because of the sensitive nature of the issue. For now, though, identification of the homeless students in the district is done via the residential factor.
The district finds out who these homeless children are when they fill out the enrollment forms.
“We have a residency requirement that (students) fill out” when they enroll, said Thibodeau. The form includes questions about the child’s name, home address and whether current address is temporary – information about lack of housing would indicate economic hardship or if the housing is sub-standard – and whether there is a legal guardian or parent present. Under the homeless category are “unaccompanied youth” whose parents or adult guardians are absent. The district has “60 or 70 ‘unaccompanied’ youth” that Health Services is also trying to help, said Thibodeau.
Assistance to these students in need take on various forms, primarily basic material things.
Things such as school materials, clothing, shoes, hygiene items, “things that would help them become successful in school. We give them resources for food,” said Thibodeau.
There are many different ways to give things to these homeless children. A lot of the things that the kids need are made known to the teacher, she said.
Other times, “We deal directly with some students. We bring them to the (Health Services) office. Sometimes a parent would come. A lot of the kids don’t have much. There are girls who don’t have sanitary pads. They don’t have anything,” she said.
And that includes many of the basic things that people usually take for granted such as shampoo, toothpaste, toothbrushes, combs, hair brushes, she added.
“Sometimes, for a lot of these families, the question they always ask is: do we pay a bill or do we buy food?”
When giving the homeless students food, they have to take into consideration several factors. You don’t want to give frozen or perishable goods when someone is living in a car or tent, Thibodeau pointed out. They are not likely to have a refrigerator in that type of living situation, she said. “It has to be ready to eat.”
This year and for the past couple of years, some schools have started clothes closets on their own campuses to help these students in need.
“Some of the sites have developed clothes closets because they see in their own student population kids with needs,” Thibodeau said. Some of the sites did so with the help of their Parent Community Club.
Schools that opened one this year are Sierra, East Union and Lathrop high schools.
Others that started one in the past couple of years are Manteca High and Weston Ranch High School, and the following elementary schools – Neil Hafley, George McParland Annex, Shasta, Golden West, Brock Elliott, and Sequoia.
When homeless students who are referred to Health Services don’t find things that are appropriate for them – in terms of sizes, for example – in the clothes’ closet next to Thibodeau’s office, she refers them to the other closets located in the various school sites.
They receive a lot of clothes and other material donations including shoes, backpacks, toys and notebooks. The majority of these donated items are stored in the small clothes closet next to Thibodeau’s office. Boys’ and girls’ clothes, shirts, and pants are all sorted by sizes and stored in separate colored bins that are stacked up along the walls. Other clothes are neatly folded and piled up in shelves. Also piled high in small cubbyholes are pairs of shoes that are likewise sorted according to sizes. In large plastic boxes neatly stacked up on the floor are blankets, sheets, and pillow cases. Some of the colorful blankets, with motifs that include school buses and alphabet letters, were donated by members of the Manteca Quilters Club. These are projects that members do during their regular quilting bees. Some of the items are sent to the children at Mary Graham Hall and to the neo-natal unit at the San Joaquin General Hospital in French Camp.
“They make lap robe-size quilts and they bring us piles of quilts that they make. We give kids pillow cases and the quilts when we can,” Thibodeau said.
The pillow cases are useful for the homeless kids because they can “use them to carry their stuff sometimes - papers, crayons, scissors,” she said.
“Some of the kids are bounced around a lot,” so the pillow cases become, in a way, “their personal suitcase,” said Lynda Donaldson who is a member of Thibodeau’s staff.
The district’s clothes closets accept donations of gently used clothes and shoes. But they also can use cash donations so they can purchase other things that students need but are not available in their inventory. With the money, too, they can buy new clothes for the children. For many of them, they have never had new clothes.
“Cash is better, and that’s because we can buy specific things that are necessary. A lot of kids just don’t get anything new. Literally, some of them have never had new things. They’ve always have hand-me-downs that somebody got from Goodwill for them. And we try not to give them things that are well used.”
There’s also the issue of not having enough manpower to do the sorting and cleaning of, say, 900 pounds of donated used clothes.
All donations, though, are always welcome.
For more information on how to contribute to the program that helps the homeless students in the school district, call (209) 858-0788.