The details were hazy but the urgency was clear: A family with three Palo Alto schoolchildren was living in their car, with a parent seriously ill. Could anybody help?
No solutions were forthcoming when the family's plight was raised by Philip Dah, program director of the Opportunity Center, at an Oct. 10 meeting of Palo Alto's Human Relations Commission. Dah said the school district had called him to see whether he knew of housing leads, but he had none.
The three children are among 18 Palo Alto students, from 10 different families, known by the school district to be homeless this year, said Student Services Coordinator Brenda Carrillo.
The children, she said, range from kindergartners to high school students. Some are living in cars or campers, others in shelters and others with friends or family members on a short-term basis.
Some of the families are newly homeless thrown into crisis by a serious illness, separation or divorce while a handful have been homeless for years, Carrillo said.
"These are families that face extreme challenges," she said.
A 1987 federal law, the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, enumerates rights of homeless children to continue at the school they attend when they first become homeless. It also ensures homeless children transportation to and from school free of charge.
The Palo Alto school district issues bus or Caltrain passes to students living in homeless shelters outside the district if they choose to continue in local schools. In some cases, families will opt to switch to districts where the shelter is located, Carrillo said.
The district also ensures that homeless students have backpacks, school supplies, laptop computers, tutoring if necessary and gifts for the holidays.
For homeless children, the challenges are many.
"There are the functional things like showering and food, and then the whole other arena of how they're accepted in school, how they can fit in and the stigma that comes with being homeless," Carrillo said.
"That's not something most of us would want others to know about, and we're strategic in working with the families to find out what their comfort level is, and how they'd like us to serve them.
"Some of the parents say, 'Please don't provide any services to my student on campus, but if there's a backpack or a computer I'll come to the district office and pick it up.'
"Other families are much more open about having the supports provided on campus but this is certainly a hidden population."
Carrillo said she did not know which member of the school district had called the Opportunity Center in search of housing for the car-dwelling family with three students.
"We're not social workers or case managers, but if we can make a call to advocate on behalf of a family, we'll definitely do that," she said.
"We do work closely with the Opportunity Center, but it's always a balance because our primary interest is in making sure children have access to the curriculum, are doing well and can participate in activities."
The number of documented homeless students in Palo Alto fluctuates last year it was 15 children from eight families and may not be complete.
"There may be other families out there who would meet the legal definition but may not choose to come forward, may feel they're managing on their own and don't want folks to know about it or there may be cultural reasons," Carrillo said. "But I don't think we have all that many."
"People are often surprised to hear that we actually have homeless families in our community, but I think its important for people to understand that our schools are made up of a lot of diversity," Carrillo said.