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Despite Strong Systemic Efforts, Berkeley’s Unhoused Students Struggle in Distance Learning


For some students — especially those with unstable home lives and housing situations — school can be a kind of alternate home, a place where they can find emotional, and sometimes even financial support from counselors or teachers. But what happens when school is no longer a place you can go? 

“A lot of people use school as an escape from their lives. … It’s the hugs, it’s seeing people screaming, it’s watching two thousand kids try to leave at lunch, it’s this normalcy that we all have, it’s having your best friend tell you that you look cute in your new hoodie,” said Berkeley High School (BHS) intervention counselor Jasdeep Malhi. “All of those things we’re not getting on Zoom.”

With all schools in Berkeley Unified School District (BUSD) currently operating online, unsheltered students are struggling to find the connections and support they used to access at school. Both BUSD and BHS have an array of successful programs that support unsheltered and low-income students in multiple ways, but it is nearly impossible for those programs to address the larger problems students face, such as the pandemic and housing market.

As BUSD’s McKinney-Vento Coordinator and Homeless Outreach Program for Education (HOPE) counselor, Melody Royal is doing everything she can in the face of these seemingly insurmountable challenges. 

It is Royal’s job to direct families to accessible resources, and in some cases even stable housing, but she often cannot directly help them. Another area she works in is creating broader solutions, which involve partnering with the City of Berkeley and local organizations to help unsheltered families.

Royal estimates that there are over 260 unsheltered students in BUSD out of the total 9,800, a number she called “low.” 

One of the biggest problems Royal has encountered is that many families do not know where to find the services they need. She explained that some BUSD families may be missing out on available aid because they do not realize that the federal government’s definition of homeless students applies to them. 

The 1987 McKinney-Vento Act defines homeless youth as individuals who lack a “fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence,” suggesting a much broader range of living situations than the images that typically come to mind when we think of homelessness.

According to Royal, most homeless families in Berkeley do not live on the streets or in shelters, but rather in otherwise “unstable” situations, such as having to move around from house to house, staying with different people, living in cars, or multiple families being forced to live together; “doubling up,” as many call it. 

“One of the reasons you don’t see any families on the street — and I’m not saying we don’t have any, because there are some — but why you don’t see very many is because, as a mother, I would do whatever I had to do to house my children,” said Royal. “If that meant I sleep in a car, my kids sleep on somebody’s floor [or] in their living room for two nights, and then we go to another house, that’s what I would do. I just really think that parents would do whatever is necessary to keep their kids off the street, and that’s why we don’t see as many homeless families. But they are out there.”

A lot has been done for the homeless families that the district is aware of, through programs initiated by Royal’s office and those of the Berkeley Public Schools Fund, a donation-based program that gives money and resources to help serve BUSD. 

The fund made an active choice at the start of the pandemic to direct its assistance to BUSD students and families who are especially in need. 

Like a number of other BUSD programs, the fund targets issues that are common among low-income families but not specific to homelessness because of the overlap of issues many unsheltered families face.

One of its major projects has been creating an EdHub at the Berkeley Adult School to distribute resources such as chromebooks, hotspots, food, and other materials. The fund has also been giving ten thousand dollars to struggling BUSD families each week since the start of the pandemic. The list goes on: the fund has also established a “runner’s program,” to help bring resources to families who can’t travel to the EdHub, a book drive, and, last spring, arranged housing at a hotel for ten BUSD families with children with underlying medical conditions.

Many of these programs were created in collaboration with Royal and the Office of Equity and Family Engagement, another BUSD entity whose job it is to support struggling families and students. 

Creating housing in a hotel was, in particular, a shared project with Royal, and, although it could not continue indefinitely because of funding, some of the families are now living in an Emeryville shelter and others have even found long-term housing. 

In a way, the program was a response to Governor Gavin Newsom’s Project Roomkey, which provided hotel rooms to homeless individuals statewide. While the state program was relatively successful, Royal criticized it for ignoring the needs of families. 

“It is beyond me how, when we have a lockdown and people’s lives are at risk, we don’t have a resource for homeless families that is being provided by the state. … There is no government entity that is supporting families, so it’s the shelter or nothing,” said Royal.

More specific support for educational progress and academic achievement for disadvantaged and homeless students at BHS is available through the Coordination of Services Team (COST), a group of counselors, including Royal, and other BHS staff who focus on individual assistance. 

The group meets once a week to look through Illuminate, the program used in BUSD for tracking grades and attendance, to identify students who may be struggling. Although COST does not specifically focus on students dealing with homelessness, they have found that a number of students facing academic challenges are struggling as a result of unstable housing.

Each week COST searches for students who have missed a certain number of classes, and then reaches out to each student individually, asking them and their families if they need any type of assistance. Among the counselors in the meeting, there is always one who knows the student on a personal level. According to Royal, in most situations they find that the student has a specific reason for their absences, such as needing to care for younger siblings in distance learning, or work a job to provide for their family. 

While COST often cannot solve these problems, they can make teachers aware of the student’s extenuating circumstances.

Malhi is also a member of COST. She has observed that unhoused students, or those in unstable housing situations, are disproportionately affected by the challenges of remote learning. Some of these challenges include the obligation of taking care of a sibling, working a part-time job, and having limited access to WiFi and technology. 

However, she has also seen major social and emotional repercussions from the loss of school as a stabilizing environment, along with the loss of social connections. It is now much harder for Malhi, Royal, and others to reach out directly to offer support to students and families. 

For Malhi, this means far less face-to-face contact with students, especially those with less reliable WiFi or technology, and also far fewer students even knowing that they can come to her. 

“I’ve never had such a hard year … getting to know students,” said Malhi. “I’ve always had this street cred, like people knew who I was … but now it’s so hard.”

This is a universal problem at BHS, as students often lack the motivation or the know-how to find the resources they need when they’re not on campus. 

Most of these efforts to help unsheltered students — whether academically, emotionally, or practically — are less targeted toward underlying problems, and more toward helping students and families survive and get what they need on a daily basis.

Royal does refer families to housing, and often tells them to call the 211 line to help them get on the list for Section 8 housing and vouchers, but this is often the most she can do, aside from her unique efforts to house families in hotels in the spring. Though she and some of the other people who help unsheltered students realize this flaw in the system, they can’t necessarily provide more at the moment. 

“The problem [is] that we can’t house a family … The problem is affordable housing, which is a more statewide problem,” said Malhi. “What we can do is provide a kid with a laptop, provide them with a hotspot, give them one-on-one attention and tutoring, give them a counselor to work with. These are all things we’re able to do for students right now, but the other stuff we’re not able to.”

If you or your family is struggling with housing instability please reach out to Melody Royal at (510) 644-6529 or [email protected].