Lizbeth Loyola Campos is just beginning her work with Santa Ana schoolchildren whose family struggles with housing classify them as homeless.
Her job won’t be easy.
The kids she’s trying to help often call motel rooms home. They sleep on mattresses on garage floors. Their family shares a single room in a house or an apartment crowded with other families. They’ve stayed at shelters; lived out of the family car.
They are poor, even when their parents work. They often need help to secure food and other basics.
They move a lot. They fall behind in school. They drop out more often.
And the coronavirus — which has brought economic disruption and social isolation — has only made those challenges tougher.
What’s more, the location of Campos’ job is a change for Santa Ana.
Campos is a case manager with Project Hope Alliance, a nonprofit that works to improve the educational outcomes for homeless children. Because of a new partnership between Project Hope Alliance and the Santa Ana Unified School District, Campos is working at Martin R. Heninger Elementary, a K-through-8 feeder for Santa Ana High. She’s been at Heninger since last month and is slated to work there for at least a year.
The idea of connecting social services to education isn’t new. A federal law, known as the McKinney-Vento Act, which describes the rights and services homeless children are entitled to as part of their education, dates back to 1987. And Santa Ana Unified already has McKinney-Vento liaisons at each of its 56 schools, working to provide basic needs for every child.
But there are limitations to how effective schools can be at providing social services to homeless children, with educators stymied by, among other things, bureaucratic rules, reluctant parents and the stigma of homelessness. Campos, a social worker by training, is tasked with going beyond the basics.
Campos, who has been with the nonprofit for three years, is on hand every day at Heninger, working to connect families to resources and services that might make their lives easier. If they need housing or a job, she knows where to send them. If they need a ride, she can take them. If the paperwork is puzzling, she’ll help fill it out. Even if the need is as simple as moral support, she’ll sit beside a parent or guardian during an appointment.
For the kids, she can be a confidant and mentor, steering them toward enrichment opportunities. And she can be an example
Campos, 25, is a Spanish-speaking Latina who grew up in Santa Ana, attending schools like Heninger. When she was in elementary school, her family of six rented a bedroom in a house they shared with others.
She has a deep empathy for the children whose lives she hopes to help change.
“I grew up as a kid who was ‘doubled up,’ and had no idea there was a term for that,” Campos said, referencing the McKinney-Vento definition of homelessness for children and youth, a much broader interpretation than other government agencies might use.
“I realize I would have qualified” for assistance, Campos added. “That was me.”
Campos gives out her cellphone number so the adults and children she works with can call or text anytime. Someone from the nonprofit is always available for urgent assistance, including when a child is expressing thoughts of self harm, something that, over the past year, has risen among young people.
Educators say the stability that can come from such a deep commitment is critical to a child’s academic success.
“They are going to be a 24-7 lifeline to the families at Heninger,” said Sonia Llamas, the district’s assistant superintendent of school performance and culture, referring to the accessibility of Project Hope Alliance case managers. Llamas, who oversees the department that provides support for homeless students, added that the kind of one-on-one, full-time assistance offered by Campos is “priceless.”
The partnership between Project Hope Alliance, an organization whose chief executive spent parts of her own childhood living in motels, and Santa Ana schools is in its pilot stage. A $150,000 grant from the city of Santa Ana, which historically has borne the brunt of the costs and consequences of homelessness in Orange County, is underwriting the nonprofit’s work with 50 students at Heninger.
Sadly, there’s high demand for more people like Campos.
Countywide, about 30,000 student are believed to lack traditional full-time shelter, with nearly 90% living in some kind of shared housing, double- and tripled-up with other families, according to figures from the Orange County Department of Education. The biggest slice of that population — 5,891 children as of March — attends schools in Santa Ana Unified.
The population is routinely in flux, constantly on the move because of housing instability. It’s a challenge for educators to identify which students are struggling with homelessness. The families often won’t seek help; parents sometimes fear that being homeless will prompt Child Protective Services to take their children away. And for those who are undocumented, the worry (unfounded) is that connecting with social services will put them at risk of deportation.
Still, even as the district has been experiencing declining enrollment overall, the number of homeless schoolchildren appears to be increasing. Llamas said the jump — 700 in the past year — might reflect better training to identify homeless students.
Since 2015, Project Hope Alliance has offered programs at campuses in Newport-Mesa Unified, where it serves 158 students. Another 200 are on a waiting list. The nonprofit works with children and youth from kindergarten to age 24, seeing them through post-secondary education and training.
Case managers also work with families living in motels around the county, including some in Santa Ana. That outreach expanded last year, when pandemic-related remote learning spurred the nonprofit to provide financially challenged students with the WiFi hot spots and laptops they needed to attend class. The nonprofit also set up a learning center at its offices in Costa Mesa, offering a quiet place where students can log in for school work, and get tutoring, mentoring and snacks.
Several months ago, after reading about that outreach, Santa Ana school board member Valerie Amuezca contacted Project Hope Alliance about putting a case worker on a Santa Ana campus. In December, the group secured a Community Development Block Grant and, by March, Campos was working full-time at Heninger.
“They can reach families that we can not,” Amuezca said of Project Hope Alliance. “They have the ability to go into their homes, to drive them to appointments, deliver food.”
Santa Ana has always been on the radar of Project Hope Alliance. Improving the lives of 50 children might be just a small dent in a bigger problem, but it’s a start, said Tracy Carmichael, the organization’s president and chief strategy officer. The hope is to secure further funding from the city and the school district — along with fundraising — to help the group expand into other Santa Ana schools.
“We are hustling day in and day out to get as many kids as we can into our care.”
Campos, the eldest of four siblings, attended a GATE program in Santa Ana Unified until junior high. At that point, her parents, worried about what they perceived as potentially negative influences, wanted Campos to be educated in the neighboring Garden Grove school district. So they moved to a one-bedroom apartment within the Garden Grove school boundaries that was still in Santa Ana city limits.
Both of her parents worked — her mother an in-home day care provider and her father an entrepreneur with his own carpet cleaning business. Campos said her family was more financially secure than most of the families she’s working with at Heninger. The pandemic has wiped out jobs and increased desperation. Of the six families she’s introduced into the Project Hope Alliance program, only one parent was working.
“My goal is to help these families break the cycle of generational poverty and homelessness,” she said. “They don’t have the resources to just move.”
The school has identified the families with the highest needs. Right now, Campos said, she is getting to know them. It’s a sensitive process, but they are opening up to her.
One woman recently told Campos that her grandson is thinking about dropping out of school, but, in Campos, she could envision a different path.
“Look at you,” the woman told Campos. “You made it.”
Source: Orange County Register