A growing number of children who attend Sacramento County public schools are homeless or living in unstable housing conditions, new figures show.
At a time when affordable housing is scarce and rents are high, the number of students without a stable place to sleep surged 15 percent last year and has risen more than 20 percent since 2011, according to data collected by school districts in the county.
Districts use federal guidelines to identify children who are in unstable households, including those who are sleeping in motels, campgrounds, shelters or “doubled up” in the homes of friends or relatives.
In the 2016-17 school year, schools tallied 12,995 Sacramento County youngsters from infants through 12th-graders who fell into those categories, compared to 11,306 the previous year.
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The numbers likely are artificially low, said Alyson Collier, coordinator of the Education for Homeless Children and Youth program within the Sacramento County Office of Education.
Collier said schools attempt to identify the housing status of students during the registration process and try to follow up with families to get further information.
“I think it’s a good snapshot,” she said. “It’s a really strong effort to identify homeless students, but we’re never going to capture them all.”
Although school districts are required to have “homeless liaisons” and compile statistics on homeless students, many lack the funding to do follow-up work, said Shahera Hyatt, director of the California Homeless Youth Project.
"Districts that have more funding tend to do a better job of documenting this," Hyatt said.
Four of the 10 schools with the highest number of homeless students in Sacramento County are in the Twin Rivers district in Sacramento's north area. They are Frederick Joyce High, Grant Union High, Village Elementary and Northwood Elementary.
The Sacramento County data show that fewer than 30 percent of the students counted in the homeless report are living outdoors or in shelters. Most are crowded into homes with more than one family, said Bob Erlenbusch of the Sacramento Regional Coalition to End Homelessness.
"Some might say that people who are 'doubled up' or even 'tripled up' aren't technically homeless because they have a roof over their heads," Erlenbusch said. "But they are highly vulnerable. They could be out on the streets in two seconds. They may not be sleeping in their cars, but they have very little control over their future."
Children who live in such conditions are far more likely to struggle in school, suffer mental health issues related to fear and isolation, and become homeless as adults, studies have shown.
"The experience itself can be traumatic to children," said Collier. "We know that this sense of insecurity and trauma can impact learning."
Federal and state legislation has sought to accommodate homeless children who are forced to move from school to school and have gaps in their education, she pointed out. Schools are required to assist them with transportation, for example, and to offer backpacks and other supplies. They can receive free lunches without having to prove that they are poor.
The most recent statistics available suggest that the numbers of homeless students are rising not only in Sacramento but statewide and nationally.
According to data from the 2015-16 school year, 246,296 students were homeless in California, an increase of more than 10,000 from the previous year. Nationwide, 1.3 million homeless students were enrolled in public schools in 2015-16, according to the National Center for Homeless Education.
"The numbers have steadily gone up over time," said Hyatt.
Michele Steeb, chief executive officer of Saint John's Program for Real Change, which shelters and offers employment and counseling services to homeless women and children, said she is not surprised by the reported increase in students who are without stable housing.
On any given day this year, she said, the agency maintains a waiting list of about 400 women and children, compared to around 300 people a year ago.
In Sacramento County, the biggest contributors to child homelessness are high rents, low wages and a lack of affordable housing, said Steeb and others.
"We've seen some of the highest rent increases in the country here," said Hyatt. "It's great that we're seeing lots of new housing in the city, but those mostly accommodate people with higher incomes."
Increasingly, graduates of Saint John's jobs program "are getting work and working hard, but they can't find affordable housing," said Steeb. Despite a legislative push for more housing for lower-income people, "there isn't much coming on line in the near future," she said. "So I'm prepared for things to get a lot worse during the next few years."
Collier said schools are seeing similar trends, with more parents who have jobs but earn less than they need to obtain decent housing.
"A minimum-wage job or a part-time job delivering pizzas doesn't pay the rent," she said.
"As educational institutions, we are doing a lot more for these kids than we used to do," said Collier. "But we're not in a position to provide housing, and that's what they need. They need stability. That's a larger community issue."