Thousands of SF public-school students are homeless

Most students spend a lot of time worrying about grades, athletics, social circles and the future. But in San Francisco, there are more than 2,000 kids who have another big worry on their minds: homelessness.

Nationwide, the number of homeless students in public schools has increased 85 percent since the Great Recession, according to data released last month by the U.S. Department of Education.

There were 1.26 million homeless students enrolled in preschools and K-12 schools in the 2012-13 academic year, an 8 percent increase from the previous year.

In San Francisco's public schools, the homeless student population nearly tripled during the past 10 years: 844 in the 2004-05 school year compared to last school year's 2,352, according to data from the San Francisco Unified School District. For the past five school years, more than 2,000 students were registered as homeless, including this year's count of 2,094.

As of October 2013, there were 53,270 total students enrolled in the SFUSD.

“It's gotten acutely worse since the recession,” said Jeff Kositsky, executive director of the Hamilton Family Center, a nonprofit providing emergency shelter and services for homeless families.

“I think that San Francisco has been a little bit behind the curve,” he said in terms of addressing the problem.

The lack of family housing, including below-market-rate units and those with supportive services, coupled with the escalation of housing costs in San Francisco and the Bay Area in general have exacerbated the challenges and placed a focus on new strategies such as greater investment in eviction prevention and what's known as rapid rehousing, which is a temporary rental subsidy program.

One reason why San Francisco families are left out in the cold is the lack of shelter space and the monthslong wait to get into longer-term shelters.

San Francisco has a centralized waitlist for homeless families to have long-term shelter stays of up to six months, during which time they work on securing permanent housing and address other challenges that led to their homelessness.

In the meantime, families can stay at overnight emergency family shelters, but those facilities have started to reach capacity and turn families away. And that means the families “patchwork anything together,” such as sleeping in cars, hotel rooms or with friends, said Elizabeth Ancker, a program director for Compass Connecting Point, a nonprofit that manages the centralized list.

Today, that list for families in need of temporary housing of up to six months is 181, which is down from a one-time high of 287 in April 2013. The average family size is 3.2 people, but Compass Connecting Point has seen families with as many as 10.

Generally, half on the list at any given time were on the list before and the rest are new, Ancker said.

Kositsky said he is optimistic that strategies taking shape can end family homelessness in San Francisco by 2018, several years before the Obama administration's own goal to end it nationwide.

He said his group is focused on eviction prevention and rapid rehousing, and it has initiated a fundraising goal of $6 million in three years to add to existing city funding. Next month, his organization plans to meet with nurses and social workers at as many as 10 of the schools with the highest homeless student populations. The hope is to reach families before they become homeless or, if they do, to quickly offer services.

There is at least one homeless student enrolled in all 103 of the pre-kindergarten through 12th-grade public schools, according to data provided by Hamilton Family Center. Their data is from earlier in the year than the official number provided by the school district and lower by 128 students.

Galileo High School has the most homeless students with 141, followed by the kindergarten through eighth-grade Bessie Carmichael School with 116, according to data provided by the nonprofit. In total, there were 726 high school, 1,236 kindergarten through eighth-grade and four preschool homeless students, the data show.

“We can all agree kids shouldn't be homeless,” Kositsky said. “Kids shouldn't be waiting six months to get into a homeless shelter.”

Some families have been on the current wait list for as long as nine months.

Those families who do land longer-term shelter stays are confronted with the stark realities of San Francisco's housing options.

“Family housing in San Francisco is a pretty unrealistic option,” Ancker said. Her assessment is what's to be expected in a city where the median two-bedroom rent has soared to $4,000.

A few years ago, families might have had a chance for housing within their means in Oakland or Berkeley, but those areas have become cost-prohibitive as well, she said.

That forces families to look to places much farther away, such as Pittsburg, Antioch or Sacramento.

Ancker said that these longer-distance moves can be very disruptive, as these families lose their support community.

“Families are generally very resistant to it at first,” Ancker said of the prospect of leaving San Francisco.

Stephanie Stinson, 52, and her 11-year-old son Julius Barnes, who began attending a public school in the Tenderloin last year, are homeless and living temporarily at the Hamilton Family Center. Stinson said she and her husband, who grew up in San Francisco, were living in San Mateo County paying $2,300 in rent when health problems forced him from his job as a dietician. She was working as an alcohol and drug counselor. The couple decided to move to San Francisco and wound up living on the streets, at first around 16th and Mission streets, or in homeless shelters.

“It's so hard to find housing out here,” Stinson said, noting that her six-month stay at Hamilton is coming to an end next month. “I'm putting applications [in] everywhere. My husband is 68. I got to take care of him at the same time.”

Barnes was in school in San Mateo, and for a while stayed with his sister in Sacramento but is now adjusting to public school in San Francisco.

Kositsky knows well about the economic pressures facing everyone in San Francisco. He said about half of his friends moved away in recent years simply because of the financial strain. For his nonprofit's clients, it means turning to technology to communicate.

“We've got families as far away as Sacramento now. We've started to use Skype to do case management,” Kositsky said.

“It's sad for anybody who wants to live here and can't,” he added.

While below-market-rate housing has become unrealistic, The City celebrated in June the opening up of a new 73-unit housing development at 6600 Third St. for the formerly homeless at what once was the Franciscan Motel. And 50 units for formerly homeless as part of the 1180 Fourth St. site development.

“That's a rare and glorious time,” Ancker said of new family housing units. “They are the golden ticket for families. It's so rare.”

S.F.’s homeless students

School year; Students

2004-05: 844

2005-06: 950

2006-07: 1,122

2007-08: 1,213

2008-09: 1,484

2009-10: 1,778

2010-11: 2,364

2011-12: 2,275

2012-13: 2,094

2013-14: 2,352

2014-15: 2,094

Source: SFUSD

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