Every time Salinas third-grade teacher Maria Castellanoz gets a whiff of kerosene, it takes her right back to her childhood in a migrant labor camp. Her parents used to heat the house with the stuff, in a kerosene lamp. When it was cold, her father moved the lamp from room to room to keep his family warm.

Like many who work on the front lines with children, Castellanoz is often the first to notice that a child in her care is homeless or living in overcrowded conditions.

Homelessness among students is the highest it has ever been, according to a national report released last month. But advocates say that one major reason for the increase is that teachers and other school officials are more aware and better prepared to identify homeless kids.

As a child, Castellanoz and four of her siblings would cram into one room of the two-bedroom home; her parents would get the other, and her older brother used a small room as his bedroom.  

As the years wore on, though, the roof began to leak, and the entire family of eight ended up in bunk beds in the living room. Later, the owners ended up tearing the home down. Castellanoz still drives by the East Bay camp, though, just to remind herself where she came from, and what her students are dealing with.

That experience would later make her expert at identifying students living in similar overcrowded situations. (Under the McKinney-Vento Act, homeless is defined as lacking “fixed, regular and adequate” housing. Sharing someone else’s home because of housing loss or economic hardship is considered homelessness.)

Student homelessness the highest ever

Nationwide, public schools identified 1.5 million children experiencing homelessness in the 2017-2018 school year, an increase of 11% from the previous school year, according to a report released in January by the National Center for Homeless Education (NCHE). 

A small portion of those students are living in unsheltered situations, such as cars, parks, streets or bus stations, a segment that more than doubled from the previous school year. Homeless students in emergency shelters or transitional housing decreased by 2% while those staying in motels went up by 17%. Students living with others for short-term stays — such as crashing on the couches of friends after eviction — increased by 9% that year. 

Yet a November 2019 audit in California found the Golden State’s schools undercounted their homeless students by at least 37% during the 2017-2018 school year.

A recent UCLA study found that more than 200,000 students — 3.3% of the state’s student population — are experiencing homelessness. Santa Barbara ranks highest, with 12% of its students reporting living conditions that qualify as homeless under the McKinney-Vento Act.

Monterey County reports the second-highest numbers statewide. Of the 77,954 students in the county, researchers found 6,764, or 8.68% of students, fit the definition of homelessness.

Maria Castellanoz has been teaching at Sherwood Elementary School for 22 years. Castellanoz hugs a student as she watches other students get picked by their parents. Photo by David Rodriguez/The Californian

At Sherwood Elementary School, the Salinas school where Castellanoz has taught for 22 years, about half the students are considered homeless under McKinney-Vento, said Cheryl Camany, who runs the district’s Family Resource Center, where homeless families can get food, clothes and an occasional toy.

“Little by little, I can start to identify them,” said Castellanoz. “You start piecing it together.”

Anecdotally, Camany said she and her staff have seen more students report homelessness this school year, and many are reporting worse circumstances than before. 

“Parents are disclosing more information about their living circumstances, like they’re living in a car or at the shelter, with no water, with mold, with no electricity or plumbing,” said Camany. “Before they wouldn’t disclose that in fear of being found out by the city or the county’s code enforcement or health department.”

From what she’s seen, though, she also believes the population of homeless students is expanding due to a lack of affordable housing and a migrant farmworker population taking up available motel and hotel rooms. That pushes people into fitting their entire families into one room of a house or an apartment.

Monterey County’s 2018 ‘Farmworker Housing and Action Plan’ for the Salinas and Pajaro Valleys shows more than 91,000 agricultural workers lived and worked in Monterey and Santa Cruz counties in 2016. 

“They have to work, and they have to come into this area to work, seasonally,” said Camany. “That all relates to finding a lack of affordable rental units, and the lack of motels and hotels available, seasonally. Those are the hotels where our homeless families would usually go, and your shelters are at capacity, all of them, with waiting lists.”

Teachers recognizing homeless kids 

Donna Smith, coordinator for homeless children and Youth at Monterey County Office of Education, said that part of the reason the disclosures are up is because the county staff and teachers have gotten better over the years at identifying students who are homeless or living in overcrowded conditions.

The schools have emphasized training people who interact with students on a daily basis, such as teachers, office secretaries and cafeteria workers. Additionally, the county education office has streamlined the reporting process, requiring parents to fill out living information at the beginning of the school year, or upon switching schools.

If students become homeless during the year, however, oftentimes it can be up to the district’s faculty and staff to take note of changes in hunger, attendance, behavior or cleanliness.

‘I sleep in the living room’

Still others learn of student homelessness through intentional or unintentional disclosures. 

Catellanoz learns a lot about her students through their writing, and their daily journal prompts, she said. Something as simple as “tell me about your outdoor activities” could reveal that a student never gets to go outside because they live in a too-crowded apartment. “Describe your bedroom” might end in learning that a student “doesn’t have a bedroom,” or another writing “I sleep in the living room.”

“A lot of them, they don’t feel like they’re homeless, they’re not going to say that,” said Castellanoz. “But they live with two families, three families.”

Maria Castellanoz points at an excerpt that one of her students wrote in a journal answering a prompt about their favorite room at home. “My favorite room is the living room.” She has learned a lot about her students’ living conditions through their writing. Photo by David Rodriguez/The Californian

When Smith started at her position in August, 9,907 children in the county had been identified as homeless, she said.

“And that’s been going up every year,” said Smith. “Everybody is working really hard to help these families.

“We’re doing a much better job of identifying (homeless students), but the majority of our students are doubled up, families living together because they can’t afford not to, or because of a crisis.”

Smith noticed the increase in homelessness coincided with an increase in cost of living and rents. 

“Many of our homeless families are working but don’t make enough to buy a house or do first month’s rent plus deposit,” she said. “Coming up with that initial amount is very difficult.”

Castellanoz uses her own experiences to help her identify students, and make sure that they are getting what they need. She shares stories of her childhood with her students so they feel more comfortable sharing with her. It’s also helped her meet her students where they are, and have a better experience in her classroom.

“I’ve had kids fall asleep in my classroom and I let them sleep,” she said. “I’m going to need them to get their rest. Maybe the rest of the day they can function.

“It takes me back to my childhood,” said Castellanoz. “I understand their homelessness. They have no control over it.”

Kate Cimini is a multimedia journalist for The Californian. This article is part of The California Divide, a collaboration among newsrooms examining income inequity and economic survival in California.

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Kate Cimini is a reporter with the Salinas Californian and CalMatters' California Divide project. She covers economic inequality, agriculture, and housing. Previously, she covered national security, natural...