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School’s hard at homeless shelters, then a pandemic hit


Yuri Cruz Flores and her four kids already had endured so much, fleeing violence-plagued El Salvador and journeying north through Guatemala and Mexico to find asylum in the United States. She was able to land a job, but after an illness, lost it and their apartment too.

She caught a break when LifeMoves, a Menlo Park-based nonprofit that helps homeless families in San Mateo and Santa Clara counties with shelter and services, put them up in its tidy Villa shelter in downtown San Jose in July, and she was able to find new work at a supermarket deli.

But with three of her four kids in school and already struggling to adjust to learning in a new, English-speaking country, they now faced not only the added upheaval of homelessness but the curveball of the coronavirus pandemic that has forced students into remote online classes.

“I work, so I can’t be here all day with them,” Flores, 32, said through an interpreter.

She said she is grateful to LifeMoves staff like Children’s Services Coordinator Marika Buchholz who have helped her children while she’s working. “I feel good because Marika is always here to make sure the kids are always in school and to help with the homework as well.”

LifeMoves, established with the 2012 merger of Shelter Network and InnVision the Way Home, helped 2,127 homeless people return to stable housing last year. With 10 shelters from Daly City to San Jose, six of them dedicated to families, the nonprofit has had plenty of experience helping kids keep up with their schooling.

But the need is enormous. Even before the pandemic, the most recent local government survey found that homelessness increased 31% in Santa Clara County and 21% in San Mateo County from 2017 to 2019. About a third of the nearly 1,000 homeless people in its shelters on any given night are children.

Now the COVID-19 pandemic has put new pressures on the nonprofit, which relies on donations to fund its work and is hoping to raise $25,000 through the Wish Book campaign to bolster its Children’s Education Program.

“Since March, when the coronavirus closed schools and increased our clients’ sense of uncertainty, the children in our shelters have exhibited increased stress,” said Jeannie Leahy, LifeMoves’ grants director. “Many are having difficulty focusing on schoolwork. For students with learning differences and those who
are non-native English speakers, the situation is even more difficult because they are not receiving the additional support typically provided by their schools.”

LifeMoves has had to hire additional staff to ensure there are enough to fill in if one becomes sick or symptomatic and has to quarantine.

With volunteers who prepared meals and tutored children no longer able to regularly come into the shelters, those basic needs needed to be rethought. Meals now have to be delivered, and volunteer tutoring is now online. Much of that comes at added cost.

“It’s very substantial,” said LifeMoves Marketing Director Samantha Peterson. “The longer this goes on, the higher that cost has gone.”

Corporate donors have helped with providing meals. Google has provided free laptops and upgraded internet connectivity.

But distance learning poses additional challenges for the shelters’ families and staff. Ordinarily, they would ensure the children remained enrolled and get to and from school safely, and have access to tutors if needed. Now, they have to make space for the children to “Zoom school” in the shelter, where they share tight quarters with siblings as well as other families.

The program had to provide more desks, chairs and noise canceling headsets.

Buchholz opens her office up to the school children at the Villa as an extra study area, so they can spread out. When more than one family needs space, virus safety dictates that they relocate outside or to the dining area.

“We’re having to be creative,” said Buchholz, who now spends much of her weekdays helping ensure the children get and stay connected online, get their tutoring, and helping them with schoolwork.

She said that San Jose Unified School District has been very collaborative in helping the shelter kids navigate distance learning, but the teachers can only do so much.

“Virtual school is clicking all the boxes, but there’s stuff missing this year,” Buchholz said, “whether it’s the social connection, or the one-on-one support offered by the teachers.”

That was evident on a recent Tuesday when Flores had to work and leave daughters Sharon, 14, Hillary, 12, and sons Jorge, 9, and Stanley, 2, in the care of the shelter staff. While Sharon and Hillary donned pink headsets and did their math and social studies homework that afternoon, Jorge was having some difficulty with his laptop computer to connect with a language tutoring session with his teacher.

So Buchholz came to help him out while Stanley rambunctiously circled the office, waiting for another toddler to play with.


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