In the Ravenswood City School District, 42 percent of the 3,069 students are homeless, according to recent information compiled by district staff.
"I've never seen anything like this," Superintendent Gloria Hernandez-Goff said. "I've worked with people from migrant camps. I've worked in a lot of different situations as an educator, and this is actually pretty extreme."
Goff, an East Palo Alto resident for more than three years who has devoted her career to working in Title I schools and serving low-income communities, said that "homelessness" in East Palo Alto looks different than what people might imagine. Many students live in situations with multiple families to one domicile. Goff said that this often means that people are living in garages or with several families in one home, and then many are consequently evicted.
"What I want people to understand is that it's far more extreme than the concept that people would have in most communities, and I'm even talking about poor communities in the Central Valley," she said.
Who are these homeless parents and their children? Goff said that they make up the service industry -- they're the waiters, the waitresses, the cooks, the bus boys, the nannies, the people who "clean your houses and do your gardening," the ones who don't make much above minimum wage, she said.
Many families cope by moving in with relatives or couchsurfing; some parents, Goff said, find places for their children to sleep while they sleep in a car because there's no room for them indoors. The most extreme cases are the families living in vehicles.
"These people can't afford a vice," she said, "They're trying to feed their kids and put a roof over their heads of some kind. ... It's a crisis situation as far as I'm concerned, and each year I've been here, it's only gotten worse."
According to Goff, the issue, which stems from a lack of affordable housing, is going to require counties and cities to work together and look at short-term and long-term solutions, including a regional affordable housing plan. ("And by affordable I don't mean like, 'Oh, make it $2,500.' I mean really affordable to the income levels of the people who work here," she said.)
Until that happens, Goff is trying to ease her students' burdens by making the most of the resources at her disposal.
She and her husband, Duane Goff, run a semiweekly food program through a partnership with Second Harvest Food Bank, staffed by community volunteers and parents. Many parents serve the food and also take food home to feed their families. Additionally, Goff has set up a food pantry, and students who participate in the after-school program are served a hot meal.
"We used to just provide a snack in the after-school program," Goff said. "But then I found out that some parents were not eating so they could feed their kids. ... We put a lot of emphasis on the food programs in our district because of that."
Goff is not afraid to roll up her sleeves and take action. On a recent Friday she drove to Weeks Street to show where many families camp in RVs and cars at night.
Goff explained that Weeks, which was flooded due the recent heavy rain, is a relatively good place for people to park because it is a dead-end street surrounded by empty lots. Nevertheless, just before the winter holidays, many who lived there heard that the police were going to be ticketing campers and hauling vehicles away.
"I panicked about that, but then I found out that they wouldn't do that because there's nowhere for (people) to go," Goff said.
As she drove back up Weeks, Goff pointed to some RVs in front of a row of townhomes: "It's harder for them because these people (in the townhomes) will call (the police)," she said.
Goff would like to work out a way to alleviate some of the pressure felt by families living in RVs. One of her ideas involves dedicating a lot located on the school district's property for families who live in campers. She pointed out that the YMCA, which is located just down the street, would be a good place for people to shower and exercise and expressed her hopes to partner with the county library for support for the kids there in the evening.
"So there's a way we could make this a much better situation than what we currently have, although it still will be a precarious housing situation," Goff said, adding that it would hopefully be temporary, while they could work out housing arrangements.
However, Goff's desire to provide a safe location for families to park on district property has not been approved by the school board.
"It is a policy decision that the board has not had a public discussion about; we have to be concerned about liability issues," said Board of Education President Sharifa Wilson.
In the meantime, Goff said that she is continuing to work with community organizations, such as churches, to identify other areas -- other than district property -- where families can safely park and is looking to ensure that the district is covered under liability insurance for safe parking.
Also in the works is Goff's plan to install heavy duty washers and dryers in every school in the district, something that would alleviate a need for many homeless families.
"Parents can come wash their clothes, and while they're waiting, they can go in and help a teacher, read in the classroom with the kids -- just build that culture of being a part of the educational environment for their children," she said.
Currently, the district is obtaining the cost estimate for the project and already has a couple of volunteers who are going to help raise money. Goff sees this as a step toward continuing to build trust and a sense of community.
Wilson praised Goff for her initiative.
"I think she's a fantastic superintendent, one of the best we've ever had," Wilson said. "That's why she's looking at all these options, because she really cares about the children."