The bustle of children playing slows as the line for dinner begins to form — women and children are served first at the North County homeless shelter.
Eight-month-old Nathaniel sits on his mother’s hip, smiling, reaching out to those standing close. The end of another long, repetitious day nears.
Three months ago Angalina Cofer, 26, fled from a bad relationship and sought refuge at the Echo Homeless Shelter in Atascadero with Nathaniel and her daughters, Alicia, 8, and Summer, 5.
Cofer’s children are among more than a dozen youth staying at the shelter on any given night.
Countywide, the number of homeless children is increasing at an alarmingly high rate. There are nearly as many children — 1,847 — as there are homeless adults — 1,927 — according to the latest count.
These children live in shelters, motels and cars and on other people’s couches or floors. Some of them sleep in parks. Many of them have been doing it for more than a year.
The 2011 San Luis Obispo Homeless Enumeration Report, just published by the county Department of Planning and Building, found that the North County in particular has a high number of homeless children. It also found:
One-third of those identified as homeless are women, many of them mothers.
Many suffer from mental or physical disabilities.
Most of those surveyed rely on hospital emergency rooms for medical treatment.
The data is limited by its nature — it only represents those people indentified as living in shelters or transitional housing or at hospitals, parks, day centers and homeless camps in an 18-hour period on a single day.
However, the number of youth reported by school districts as homeless confirms the report’s most troubling finding — that the ranks of homeless children are increasing.
The number of homeless students in kindergarten through 12th grade in San Luis Obispo County has more than doubled in the past four years, according to figures that school districts are required to track. That number has grown by 150 percent to 1,595 from 637 in 2007.
Most of those children are living in overcrowded homes shared with two or three other families. Others, such as Cofer’s family, are living in a shelter.
It is not known exactly how much of the increase is due to school administrators getting better at identifying those students. But as awareness rises, so do the numbers.
Districts receive federal grant money that allows them to reach out to families with information about services the districts can provide. That has likely also increased their numbers, said Paulete Pahler, director of Student Services for the Paso Robles School District.
The federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act requires districts to count the number of homeless students who receive services. The act defines homelessness as any kind of substandard living.
John Elfers, the county Office of Education’s coordinator for homeless and foster youth services, said increased efforts are being made to identify homeless youth earlier in the school system in order to connect them with services such as transportation and academic help.
The highest numbers of homeless students attend schools in San Luis Obispo and Paso Robles. Of the 1,595 homeless youth, 1,214 — 76 percent — are living doubled or tripled up in homes with other families.
The reasons behind the increase are varied, though the economy has certainly played a part.
“In this economy, we are seeing more and more people losing their homes to foreclosure, but they want to keep their kids in the same school, which is honorable, and we support that,” Elfers said. “When a child’s life is chaotic, the one salvation for them or the most stable thing is their school, their teacher and their friends.”
A regular routine
Every day, Cofer walks her daughters to the bus stop where they are transported to elementary school in Paso Robles.
She then spends the day with Nathaniel, moving between the park and the library, waiting for them to return. Often, another mother named Danielle and her 2-year-old son, Jacob, also homeless, will spend the day with them.
Danielle lost her waitressing job when Denny’s closed in Atascadero two years ago. She’s been looking for work ever since. Her husband, Daryl, was injured while working for a landscaping company before that.
Unlike Cofer, Danielle and her family have been in and out of the shelter for the past eight years.
Danielle’s oldest daughter, a sixth-grader, recently asked her if she would stop walking her to the bus stop because other kids on the bus could see them coming from the shelter. And they’d mock her. (The Tribune is not using Danielle’s last name because of her worries about her daughter being ridiculed by other students.)
“We are not all bad people,” Danielle said. “A lot of us are truly trying. This is not a place that we consider home.”School administrators are aware of the stigma that can haunt homeless students.
The federal grant money given to schools allows the districts to pay for students’ various needs, including providing funds for backpacks, bus passes, field trips, school supplies, graduation gowns and clothing.
“If they feel they’re like everybody else and they have what they need, they are much more successful,” Pahler said. “They are more willing to come to school, and being at school is half the battle.”
However, homeless students still suffer stress that other students with permanent housing don’t face.
“The thing I hear most often is the anxiety,” said Mike Miller, at-risk coordinator for the South County’s Lucia Mar district. “And it’s kind of a generalized anxiety. Everything is so tenuous for them.”
Both Cofer and Danielle were notified last week that they qualified for housing assistance.
Soon, their children will have a residence to come home to after school — and not have to wait at a park or the library for the shelter to open.
“When I think about everything my kids have been through, it makes me feel like an awful mom,” Danielle said. “But we are not here because of drugs or because of anything we did — we couldn’t stop it.”