BROKEN HEARTHS: San Luis Obispo County schools cope with spike in student homelessness

ebazar@usc.eduSeptember 17, 2010 

This recession is bringing families closer together.

Literally.

San Luis Obispo County residents who are struggling to pay their mortgages or make rent payments are increasingly moving in with relatives or friends, doubling or tripling up as a way to save money.

“Some are people who, during the heyday of these easy mortgages, bought themselves a million-dollar-plus home, and now they can’t make the payments. So, they and their kids are sleeping on the couch at Grandma and Grandpa’s,” said Mike Miller, coordinator of at-risk programs for the Lucia Mar Unified School District. “It cuts across all social levels.”

Schools have a broad definition of homelessness that includes children whose families have combined households with others. In the past few years, they have seen their homeless statistics spike as the economy plunged:

• In the Lucia Mar district, 354 of the 429 homeless students in the last academic year were in families that were doubling and tripling up, Miller said.

• The San Luis Coastal Unified School District had 403 homeless students last year, up from 242 two years before.

• There were 380 homeless kids in the Atascadero district last year, up from 250 the year before.

• At Paso Robles Public Schools, 348 children were homeless last year, up from 224 the previous year and 47 the year before that. Of the 348 homeless kids in the district last year, 91 percent were in combined households.

Families packing together, often in small houses or apartments, can increase stress on everyone, including children.

“Kids are sharing rooms with parents or cousins. … They’re restless and need their own space more than they have in the past,” said Traice Caretto, director of operations for the Boys & Girls Club of South San Luis Obispo County. “They definitely have shorter tempers. Smaller things set them off.”

Their frustrations and anxieties in turn can result in outbursts or bad behavior, both at home and at school.

“I had a couple of teachers who said, ‘Why can’t they just behave? Why can’t they act normal?’ ” said Patricia Oliveros, a family advocate at Judkins and Mesa middle schools in Pismo Beach and Arroyo Grande. She works for the nonprofit group The LINK.

“I said, ‘What is normal?’ Normal for them is getting home and having three different families in the living room or bedroom. Where do they do their homework? In the kitchen? Where?”

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