MERCED -- Nearly 10 percent of the students attending high schools in Merced, Atwater and Livingston are homeless but benefiting from a state-federal grant that helps them on several fronts.
The Merced Union High School District received another three years of McKinney-Vento funding from the U.S. government, administered by the state Department of Education. It is helping about 900 students without a home.
The district is receiving $69,100 a year for the homeless program, which began three years ago.
Kelly Bentz, the district's program administrator for child welfare, attendance and safety, said the number of homeless students is a reflection of the hard economic times facing the San Joaquin Valley.
There probably are more students who have not been assisted, Bentz believes, perhaps 100 more pupils -- some don't know they qualify for help.
She said the homeless program had to have a good track record to get funded again and just got recertified by the state.
Norma Cardona, a children and youth liaison in Bentz's office, finds her job heartwarming and heartbreaking. A UC Merced graduate, she is working on her master's degree in public administration from California State University, Stanislaus.
"For a lot of homeless kids, the school is their only stable environment," Cardona said.
Bentz said the program provides free or reduced-price meals, transportation to school, clothing, school supplies and personal hygiene items, along with referrals to other public and private agencies.
"It's a hand up, not a handout," Bentz said. "We emphasize empowering students, making them responsible for themselves. We teach them resiliency skills and how to change negative circumstances into something positive. We don't want their homelessness to define them."
Cardona said the homeless program teaches students how to advocate for themselves and know their rights. She said they have had several success stories, where homeless students have overcome obstacles and gone on to college.
Bentz said that because of their circumstances, the homeless students seem to grow up a little earlier than their peers.
One of the goals of the program is to get students to come to school more often so their needs can be met, Bentz said. Research has shown that transfers to other schools are disruptive for students, putting them four to six months behind on their academic growth.
Their academic skills run the gamut. Some have exhibited good behavior while others have lengthy discipline records.
Melina Oliveros-Aguilar is a registrar at Merced's Golden Valley High School. When students come to enroll, they must show proof of residency, such as a rental agreement or utility bill.
If this isn't possible, it's a red flag that these students may be homeless. She then refers the students and their parents to Cardona.
"We try not to ask too much but with a small bit of information you can tell things have happened, a change in family dynamics. Sometimes you can see sadness and parents feel like they have failed," Oliveros-Aguilar said. "We let them know there's help. It's a relief for them, and we just don't know what's going on at home."
Bentz said last year $8,000 worth of community donations were received. That helped send 25 students to Disneyland for the senior graduation party and gave them school yearbooks.
The women's auxiliary of Merced's American Legion post has donated $600 to provide food for homeless students during the Christmas recess, she said. The students also will get $150 gift cards to use at a major Merced department store this holiday season.
Trouble at home
Bentz said it's important for high school personnel to be understanding; some students will go into great detail about their predicament while others are more tight-lipped.
She stressed students' home situations are not disclosed to protect their privacy.
Cardona said one Yosemite High School student told her she was kicked out of her home and lived on the streets for several days before she was able to move in with friends.
She has heard of instances where 16 young people are living in a two-bedroom apartment.
Reporter Doane Yawger can be reached at (209) 385-2407 or firstname.lastname@example.org.