In yet another stark measure of the region's difficult economy, Sacramento County schools have seen a marked increase in the number of students whose families do not have a stable home.
The county's school districts counted 7,254 homeless children and youths among their students last year, a jump of more than 50 percent since 2005.
The numbers are part of a comprehensive report on child welfare prepared by the Sacramento County Children's Commission, which was appointed by the county Board of Supervisors. Among other topics, the report looks at child safety, academic achievement, family economics and health.
The statistics on homeless students were collected by school districts, which use federal guidelines to identify children who are in unstable households. Children in "homeless situations" by the federal definition "lack a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence," and include those who are sleeping in motels, campgrounds, shelters or on the sofas of relatives.
"We're not talking about a family who is renting an apartment with roommates," said Hilary Krogh, coordinator of the county Office of Education's Project TEACH program for homeless children. "These are kids who truly do not have stable housing from night to night."
Krogh works with homeless liaisons within each school district to identify such children and link them with services that help them stay in class. Those services are harder to come by these days because of an increase in demand and cuts in social "safety net" programs, said Krogh and others.
The report's numbers contrast with a federally mandated census conducted on a single night earlier this year. The census documented a drop in the number of men, women and children living on the streets and in shelters in the county.
But that "street count" does not accurately represent the number of school-age children who are homeless, said Bob Erlenbusch, policy director of the Sacramento Housing Alliance.
"We have known for years that the census undercounts families and children," who may not be sleeping in shelters or along the river but "couch surfing" with friends or relatives, he said.
Still, said Erlenbusch, "I was surprised that the number of homeless kids and youth going to school each day had jumped 50 percent in five years. That's a huge number."
Angela Hassel, director of the Mustard Seed School for homeless children in Sacramento, said the numbers are stunning even for people who work with such youngsters on a daily basis.
"It's astounding," said Hassel, whose school's goal is to give children a place to learn until they can return to the public school system and a more stable life.
"Coming to school every day when so much has changed outside of the classroom is a very comforting thing for kids," she said. "They have a routine. They have their teachers and their friends. It helps them get through the other stuff."
Nationally, public schools saw a 38 percent increase in students who were homeless during the period documented in the Sacramento report, said Barbara Duffield of the National Association of Education of Homeless Children and Youth.
In a survey of the top reasons for student homelessness, schools cited the recession and job loss at the top, Duffield said.
Teachers and others who work with homeless children in the Folsom Cordova Unified School District are working extra hours and asking stores and community leaders to pitch in to keep up with the increasing numbers, said Charlene Hunt, the district's homeless liaison.
The county report listed Folsom Cordova fourth in the county in its number of homeless students last year, with 662. Twin Rivers Unified had the most with 1,844.
Hunt and other liaisons, along with teachers, principals and other school staffers, work with the Project TEACH program to screen families for housing instability and hook them up with food, transportation, counseling and other services.
"For one thing, we want families to know that they have the right to stay in their schools when they have to move. They don't have to switch schools every time they go from one place to another," said Krogh.
They also have a legal right to transportation, if needed, to and from school, she said.
But some services for homeless children have vanished with budget cuts, including summer school and after-school programs for many youngsters, she said.
Hunt said she and her staff, along with volunteers, have formed a grass-roots group that provides students with gift cards for shoes, backpacks and other necessities.
"This week I worked with a family that has gone from living in a beautiful neighborhood to being absolutely homeless," she said. "It's typical of what we are seeing with the middle class being affected by job losses and foreclosures."
The district also is seeing people "time out" of assistance programs such as CalWORKs and fall into homelessness, Hunt said.
"In some instances the mother is forced to support the entire family on just food stamps and a couple of hundred dollars in cash aid for the children," she said. "What kind of apartment can you get for that?"
Children who become homeless "are in a stinking war zone," said Hunt. Their concentration slips, and they have trouble finishing assignments.
"They are sleeping in various places, changing schools, losing their friends," she said."All of these things cause trauma in children.
"But I have great faith in their resiliency when they have a mentor and people who care about them and believe in them. If they have that, they can absolutely succeed."