EDITOR'S NOTE: This story was produced with support from a New America Media fellowship to report on children in poverty in California, and is part one of a three part series exploring youth homelessness and education.
FRESNO -- Every morning, Anissa Gutiérrez leaves her home at the Fresno Rescue Mission Emergency Family Shelter, located in an industrial area of central Fresno, and walks her three children to Lincoln Elementary School.
Along their brief journey, Gutiérrez , 8 year-old Lily, 7 year-old Gavien, and 5 year-old Deon pass the homeless shelter Poverello House, and a lot filled with small sheds that also house the homeless, called Village of Hope. They continue past the scattered tents and makeshift shelters that comprise the city's homeless encampments, and walk along the Highway 99 overpass.
Once they arrive at Lincoln Elementary, Lily and Gavien wave goodbye to their mother and then scamper toward the schoolhouse, blending in with their classmates.
Gutiérrez, 35, lost her apartment days before Christmas, and moved into the Rescue Mission shelter last January. School, she said, provides her kids with a few hours of ”normal life” during a period of uncertainty.
"I want them to go to school and stay in school for the rest of their lives," said Gutiérrez, a Fresno High School graduate who said that growing up, "I didn't know college was something I could actually do."
No matter how much Gutiérrez “hates” walking out the shelter’s front doors and facing the wretched surroundings, nothing will stop her from making the daily pilgrimage to Lincoln Elementary with her kids. Prioritizing their education, said Gutiérrez, means ensuring that “they don't end up here" later in life.
With 2,400 homeless students (more than 60 percent of them Latino), Fresno Unified School District has the second highest number of homeless students in the state, trailing only the Los Angeles school district.
"School is a sanctuary, and education represents hope and a way out of poverty for a lot of these kids," said Joe Martínez, community relations and outreach manager for the Fresno County Economic Opportunity Commission's Sanctuary and Youth Services, which provides shelter and resources to homeless youth.
"This is a place where they can come and have dreams and goals,” said Martinez.
But even though many homeless youth and their families prioritize education, and despite federal and local resources intended to help them, barriers still exist. Only about 60 percent of homeless students in Fresno’s school district graduated from high school last year. Nationally, about 38 percent of homeless people have achieved less than a high school degree by age 18, according to the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty.
With the recession leaving increasing numbers of families homeless – and with education widely regarded as a cornerstone to future success and stability – this adds up to a crisis that could have ramifications for decades to come.
In 2008, 224,249 California students attending grades K-12 -- or 3.6 percent of all public school students -- were reported to be homeless, according to KidsData.org. And according to the National Center for Homeless Education, the number of homeless students enrolled in California schools is rising at an alarming rate: 29 percent between the 2007-2008 and 2008-2009 school years alone. Neither figure includes children, or youth, whose lives are so chaotic they don’t even make it to school.
The troubles for Gutiérrez began late last fall, when she unexpectedly found herself covering the cost of rent and utilities for an apartment she and her children shared with a relative. Even with financial support from the county, she could not shoulder the full bill, and she lost the apartment in late December. The family was homeless by Christmas.
During that rough time, she and her three youngest children crashed at the homes of various friends and family members, always leaving before they had worn out their welcome. Despite their mobility, Gutiérrez did her best to keep her kids in school. "I was just trying to keep them on a stable track," she said.
When a room finally opened up at the Rescue Mission’s family shelter in January, Gutiérrez and the kids moved in. After constantly moving, Gutiérrez was grateful her children could go to school each morning knowing they had a steady place to return to in the evening.
"They get to go to school every day and I know they ate, I know they have somewhere to go home to," said Gutiérrez, who wears baggy sweatshirts and sunglasses pushed into her dark ponytail, and hopes to someday become a car mechanic.
Susan Cavazos was also thankful to have secured a room at the shelter for herself and her three sons. They had moved into the shelter after their apartment burned down, and they had lost everything.
Cavazos shares Gutiérrez’ faith in education. Her oldest son is enrolled in the Gifted and Talented Education (GTE) program and her middle child is an avid basketball player. "My hope is to get them through school, to get them through college, and I'm going to stick with them 100 percent," she said.
And like Gutiérrez, living at the shelter has only underscored the importance of education for her children. "Look around at where we are -- is that what you want?" Cavazos said she reminds her children.
Though the shelter is situated in a gritty part of Fresno, the interior is welcoming. There are nine bedrooms, each with its own bathroom, plus a front room that doubles as a chapel, and a kitchen with laundry machines. Much of the shelter is decorated with colorful murals, flowers and biblical verses.
"When you come in, it's comforting, it's relaxing," said shelter manager Robin Bump. "We want them to feel like they are safe and everything is going to be OK."
Demand has increased in recent years, Bump said. The number of families aided by the non-profit shelter increased from 154 in 2008 to 179 in 2010, and according to Bump, "there are more out there that need help."
Most of the families in the shelter are single women with children. Over the past year, at least 10 families landed in the shelter after the home they were renting was foreclosed upon.
Gutiérrez's challenges didn't end once she found a room at the shelter. Under the federal McKinney-Vento Act - the primary piece of federal legislation aimed at supporting homeless students - homeless youth can remain at their original school regardless of where they are staying, and travel there using bus tickets provided through the school district. They can also enroll at a school without having a permanent address.
But getting Lily and Gavien to their original school meant waking up at 5 a.m and taking two buses. Despite her commitment to maintaining stability in her children’s lives, Gutiérrez faced a tough choice. Eventually, she decided to transfer them to a school more nearby, Lincoln Elementary.
"It hurts my heart that I had to swoop them out of school and take them away from their little friends that they've made," Gutiérrez said.
It was a Monday night, and the kids had stayed home from school that day as they recovered from a hacking cough that was going around the shelter. Gutiérrez’ daughter Lily was bundled in a pink down jacket, even as she sat in the shelter's kitchen. Changing schools wasn’t easy, she chimed in.
"I have to make new friends," she said in a small voice.
To ensure that Lily and Gavien didn't fall behind at their new school, Lincoln Elementary and the Fresno school district provided assistance to Gutiérrez and her kids: A tutor helped Lily with her homework before school each morning, and Project ACCESS -- which assists homeless Fresno Unified students with enrolling, attending, and succeeding in school -- provided the kids with backpacks, supplies, snacks, and jackets.
Relatively speaking, Lily and Gavien have a lot of support: They have a warm, clean shelter with their own room; they live in a district that is recognized for its outreach to homeless students; and, perhaps most importantly, they have their mother. Will this be enough to help them meet the challenge of succeeding in school when they lack something as fundamental as a home of their own?
"Overall, children that are homeless are not performing as well as other students in their district, or as well as the economically disadvantaged subgroup," said Diana Bowman, program director for the National Center on Homeless Education.
But, Bowman said, there is still hope for talented, motivated homeless students. "Generally, for strong students, the impact (of being homeless) won't be quite as bad," she said. "If they are weak, struggling students, and have a history of school mobility and homelessness, it's more difficult to achieve."
It was evident that being homeless prevented Lily and Gavien from experiencing school as many of their classmates might.
Asked where he does his homework, Gavien responded simply, "I do mine in the car." Gavien, a goofy kid who enjoyed making silly faces for the camera, is still young and adaptable enough to think nothing of that.
"Sometimes we just go out (to the parking lot) and sit in the truck," Gutiérrez explained. "We just get tired of being here. We listen to the radio out there."
The kids also don't participate in school sports or other after-school programs while at the shelter. "Because we are here (at the shelter,) it is hard to get them into stuff like that, because there is no telling if we will be able to keep them in that school, once we leave here," Gutiérrez said. “That (hurts), but it has to be done. It's just easier for me, and for them, if they don't start stuff like that here."
It’s a concern that Cavazos shares. On that Monday night in January, Cavazos wore bright pink lipstick and a large, silver cross around her neck, but her mood was cloudy. “I don’t want to mess up my kids’ education,” she said. “That’s what they have. That’s the only thing they have.”
It was almost 7 p.m., so Gutiérrez and Cavazos led their children to the Rescue Mission's nightly chapel service, which, as shelter residents, they are obligated to attend. During the service, the residents prayed that Lily, Gavien and Deon would recover from their illness, and that everyone would soon find a home of their own.
"I just want them to be happy," Gutiérrez said of her kids. "I just want to take care of them. I can't spoil them, or give them everything in the world, but I want them to be happy."
To read a first-person account written by Rebecca Plevin, about her experiences reporting on youth homelessness in Fresno, please visit her blog, Harvesting Health.
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