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Program a lifeline for Merced's homeless students

High school students confront many issues and challenges growing up. Having to worry about where their next meal is coming from, what they will wear and where they will live adds undue stress along the way.

Roughly one out of 10 high school students in Merced, Atwater and Livingston is homeless and that's disruptive, even traumatic, to their education, Kelly Bentz believes.

Bentz is program administrator for the Merced Union High School District's child welfare, attendance and safety office and in charge of a program for homeless students.

In the last school year, 1,001 freshmen through seniors in this area were identified as homeless. That's 10 percent of the total enrollment.

That means they may be sharing a household with someone else or living in a car, at a camp site or homeless shelter, Bentz said. Most likely the totals are underreported, as students and their parents are reluctant to report their dire circumstances.

There is hope, however.

The district has been using $50,000 in McKinley-Vento funds each year for three years. That provides free breakfasts and lunches, assistance with school and public transportation, school supplies and clothing, help in obtaining records, and referral to community agencies, health services, counseling and tutoring.

Andrea Evans, who counsels seniors at Merced High School, said McKinley-Vento is a great resource for students in need. She has referred students to the program, which facilitates collaboration between schools and the community.

"It (homelessness) affects students socially and emotionally," Evans said. "They have to worry about where they will get their next meal and clothing for school. This program helps students so they can be successful in a school environment."

Growing up too soon

"When talking to homeless students, they seem grown up," Bentz said. "They feel embarrassed, seem sad and a little stressed. They've had to grow up too soon and confront many issues above and beyond the normal teenage angst."

Bentz will apply for a $75,000 state-federal grant from McKinley-Vento for the next three years. The money is administered by the state Department of Education, and the process is competitive, not a sure thing. She hopes the needs assessment that pinpoints eligible students may be improved in the next go-around.

"Most (students) are doubled up due to economic hardship," Bentz said. "Parents are gone or unavailable and kids are staying with a caregiver. They are called 'unaccompanied youth.' Some parents don't want to admit they are living in a car."

Homeless students don't stick out at school. They look like any other child. Bentz said the district goes to great lengths to keep students' identities and situations confidential.

Yer Xiong is a junior class counselor at Merced High; she said she has referred many students for McKinley-Vento services.

"It's a wonderful program and a great thing to have," Xiong said. "The feedback we have gotten is students are glad for the help and hope it continues."

Norma Cardona, 23, is a recent UC Merced graduate and a half-time children and youth liaison working with homeless students. She had lots of help in the past and wants to pay it forward.

Cardona, who has dual bachelor's degrees in psychology and cognitive science, said homeless students are universally grateful for the help and will say thanks many times when they conclude a $157 shopping trip at a Merced department store.

"You can feel the weight is being lifted off their shoulders," Cardona said.

Homeless students get a backpack, binder, paper, notebook, scientific calculator, dictionary, index cards, pencil sharpener and a hygiene pack including a toothbrush, shampoo, soap and towelettes. One of the most prized gifts is a new pair of shoes.

Mentors possible?

Bentz said students most commonly use donated funds to buy underwear, socks, shampoo and deodorant. She is looking into collaborating with the Boys and Girls Club to provide mentors for students meeting certain requirements.

Cardona said a Golden Valley High School freshman called the program "really cool" and said she can do more things now. Another ninth-grader at Buhach Colony High School said she's grateful and happy for the school clothing she got.

The mother of a freshman at Golden Valley said McKinley- Vento is the type of help she has been seeking for her son.

Alex Muro, an attendance liaison at Yosemite High School, said students are honest and open with him about their predicaments.

"I think it's a great program," Muro said. "We try to connect with them. Poor students have to deal with so much. A lot of parents are losing their jobs, getting evicted. It's a big help to students right now. All they have to do is ask. A lot of parents don't know we have such a program."

Cardona said the Christmas holidays are a stressful time for homeless students, especially wondering how to make up for the two-week break in availability of school meals. Students will often ask if help is available for their parents, younger brothers and sisters.

"When we go to the store," Cardona said, "they get so excited. It feels like Christmas, even in April. They're very grateful and caring."

Bentz said these children are high-risk and face all sorts of challenges.

"We want to break the cycle of homelessness in hard economic times," Bentz said.

Reporter Doane Yawger can be reached at (209) 385-2407 or